VPR Goes Backstage with “Proof”

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(Host) During the summer theater season, Vermont Public Radio goes “Backstage” to talk with actors and directors about the plays and the performances. This week, the Weston Playhouse opens the Vermont premiere of Proof, the play by David Auburn that’s still running on Broadway, and last year’s recipient of a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

VPR’s Betty Smith reports.

(Smith) In Weston’s production of Proof, a realistic back porch in Chicago takes center stage, framed by large panels of black covered with mathematical symbols. Through the house windows we see oversized family photographs. The moody, original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. suggests that we are about to explore a complex mystery.

Proof is one of several recent plays and films set in the world of math and science. In particular, Proof is concerned with issues of trust, human relationships and the legacy of the mind.

The cast includes Robert, a once brilliant mathematician. Then there’s Catherine, the daughter who has cared for him in his decline; Catherine’s estranged sister Claire; and Hal, one of Robert’s former math students.

Catherine struggles to trust Hal (the student) as he combs through the notebooks that have accumulated in Robert’s study, hoping to find some new, unpublished theoretical gem. Catherine also struggles to trust her sister Claire, who is trying to compensate for leaving Catherine to cope with their father alone. And she struggles to trust herself as a possible heir to her father’s genius. Steve Stettler directs this production:

(Stettler) “I think probably my favorite scene in the play is the scene between Catherine and her father. The playwright has such a capacity to surprise us and it’s a scene in which four different times we question who’s sane, who’s brilliant, is this happening now or is this a memory. And it’s that quality of the play throughout that I love. It’s a journey of the mind for the audience as well as the performers.”

(Smith) Catherine is played by Kate Goehring:

(Goehring) “There are people in the play who are involved in numbers and they are the most passionate people. They fly. They use numbers to go beyond what they can understand. We always think of math and science as something that ‘brings things down to a level,’ whereas in this play, math becomes something that is transcendent. And that’s why it gets scary, as people start to question their sanity.”

(Smith) As the first act comes to a close, Hal, tells the sisters that a notebook pointed out to him by Catherine contains an exciting discovery. Hal is played by Joe Osheroff and Claire is played by Pilar Witherspoon. Claire speaks first:

(Claire) “What is it?”
(Hal) “It’s incredible.”
(Claire) “What IS it?”
(Hal) “Oh, uh, it’s a result. A proof. I mean it looks like a proof. I mean, it is a proof, a very long proof, I haven’t read it all of course, or checked it, I don’t even know if I could check it, but if it is a proof of what I think, it’s a proof of¿. It’s…a very…important… proof.”
(Claire) “What does it prove?”
(Hal) “It looks like it proves a theorem… a mathematical theorem about prime numbers, something mathematicians have been trying to prove since… since there were mathematicians, basically. Most people thought it couldn’t be done.”
(Claire) “Where did you find it?”
(Hal) “In your father’s desk. Cathy told me about it.”
(Claire) “You know what this is?
(Catherine) “Sure.”
(Claire) “Is it good?”
(Catherine) “Yes.”
(Hal) “It’s historic¿ if it checks out.”
(Claire) “What does it say?”
(Hal) “I don’t know yet. I’ve just read the first few pages.”
(Claire) “But what does it mean?”

(Smith) “What it means” is what the play explores on multiple levels by way of the math metaphor, which Kate Goehring considers to be especially apt:

(Goehring) “I think math is a highly creative process, you know, and requires a great deal of, well, we come right back to it, trust, you know. Faith that there will be a solution to the question that you ask.”

(Smith) Searching for “Proof” backstage in Weston, Vermont, I’m Betty Smith.

(Host) Proof at the Weston Playhouse runs through July 13.

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