By PAM HARBAUGH
How far will a brilliant mind wander before it leaves sanity behind? That’s one of the resonating questions explored in the Henegar Center’s terrific second stage production of “Proof.”
The play won playwright David Auburn, a 2001 Pulitzer, Tony and Drama Desk Award. It concerns a 25-year old Catherine who has left her pursuit of mathematics at Northwestern in order to take care of her dying father, Robert, a mathematics genius who teaches at Chicago University.
Robert’s lofty theorems speak a language only a few can understand. But in the end, his “beautiful mind” unravels into dementia, leaving Catherine to worry if he has passed on not only his mathematics “gene” but also a predisposition to insanity.
Yes, this has some familiar sounds to it. There’s 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” in which a dead father’s transgressions is visited upon his ailing son. And filmmaker Ron Howard’s 2002 “A Beautiful Mind,” in which a brilliant mathematician is diagnosed with schizophrenia.
But Mr. Auburn’s 2000 drama is much more accessible. “Proof” brings the erudite thoughts of prime numbers and mathematical equations gently into the lap of the audience. There’s not a whit here that feels foreign. You identify with it all.
Its setting — the humble back porch of Robert’s home in Chicago’s Hyde Park – humanizes the story. So, too, do the tender scenes between Robert and Catherine. And then there’s that budding romance between Hal and Catherine. All the characters here have something to prove: their sanity, their love, their sincerity, their trustworthiness.
Directed by Anthony Mowad and brought to life by a talented cast, “Proof” unfolds like a beautiful blossom, filled with emotion and intelligence and commentary.
Rachel Greshes is luminescent as Catherine. She brings both a charming delicacy and a smart stubbornness to the character. There is something familiar about Catherine. You believe at the outset that you’ve had coffee with this person and talked about things both profound and mundane.
Although he’s a stage newcomer, Josh Huss has a very sweet, natural stage quality as Hal. His romantic scenes with Ms. Greshes are tender and filled with vulnerability. Although he may prefer to stay in the background and design lights, which he did so well for “Proof,” we hope to see much more of Mr. Huss on stage.
Alethea Vedder is pinpoint accurate as Catherine’s efficient older sister, Claire, her opposite in every way. In high heels and skin-hugging clothes and constantly tapping her pen on pages in an appointment book, Ms. Vedder’s Claire is wound tight and it shows.
John Dwyer delivers a rich, well-rounded portrayal of Robert. We see him as the loving father and the brilliant man. Then, finally we feel his agony when, in a fleeting lucid moment, Robert realizes the depth of his dementia.
Mr. Mowad’s direction is clear and concise thanks in part to projecting mathematical formulas onto the stage to show time, which is very helpful since the play jumps back and forth in time. Moreover, there’s a tenderness in pacing and character intention that makes the production feel as comfortable as the old robe Robert wears. Not to spoil anything here, but do pay attention to the lovely, sly direction of the first scene.
Brighid Reppert’s scenic design is solid and believable. Hats off, too, to sound designer Thom Restivo. A lovely little moment is when Claire, in a huff, storms into the house slamming the door shut behind her then out the other side with another “thwop.”
When you step into the little Upstairs at the Henegar space, you feel like you’ve drifted into some found space in a big city where talented people gather. The bonus is, this production amplifies that feeling.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Proof” runs through Sunday at the Henegar Center’s Upstairs @ the Henegar second stage, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne, Fl. Tickets are $16 to $26, handling charges may apply. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.Henegar.org.