- PHOTO BY JAMIE FOSTER PHOTOGRAPHY
- CHAOS THEORY : Catherine’s father Robert (Tom Ammon) treads that fine line between genius and madness.
According to Aristotle, “there is no great genius without a touch of madness,” and in this highly Aristotelian drama, the intersection of inspiration and insanity is explored through the medium of mathematics.
Robert (Tom Ammon) is a former University of Chicago professor and a math genius who revolutionized multiple fields of study in his early 20s, but for most of his life has suffered from mental illness such that his younger daughter, Catherine (Gwendolyn Gay), has forsaken her own pursuits to care for him. Upon his death, elder sister Claire (Alyson Wren) returns to Chicago from New York to collect Catherine, whom she suspects of having inherited some degree of their father’s madness. Meanwhile Hal (Nathan Emmons), a current University of Chicago professor and former doctoral student of Robert’s, pursues both the dozens of notebooks left behind by his mathematical hero and the courtship of his hero’s daughter with equal fervor.
SLO Little Theatre’s production of Proof is marked by strong performances, especially that of Gwendolyn Gay as Catherine. This dynamic cast takes a well-written but fairly static script and animates it without sacrificing its subtlety. The second act poses certain challenges of emotional pitch that the opening-night cast was still learning to modulate with the energy of a real audience in the house, but it is poised to grow more rich and subtle as the run continues. This strength of the cast both individually and as an ensemble is served well by director Teresa Thuman’s deft and straightforward staging, which allows for not one ounce of wasted motivation.
- PHOTO BY JAMIE FOSTER PHOTOGRAPHY
- LAW OF ATTRACTION : Catherine and Hal (Nathan Emmons) have more in common than just the numbers.
Unfortunately, the technical elements of the show fail to do the cast justice. The choice of music is especially jarring, and takes us out of the world of the play during each transition. In the few pivotal moments when the music overlaps with the action onstage, it actively detracts from the performances. The costumes, too, seem careless and do little to flatter their wearers. (Flip-flops should be banned from stage except when absolutely necessary; their thunk-thunk against the boards is the sound of defeat.) The only technical element that really works is David Linfield’s set, the elegant simplicity of which perfectly complements the realistic style and staging of the show.
Certain motifs in the play, too, have become dated surprisingly quickly in its first decade-plus of life. The idea that “geek” or “nerd” culture would hold a place so far outside the mainstream—a source of comic relief throughout the play as well as a minor theme—has become entirely outmoded. We may not understand higher-order mathematics any better than we did in 2000 when the play was written, but we understand a lot more about romanticizing them. Neither is our instinct still to marvel at a lady math whiz, even if girls are still too often socialized not to pursue the “hard” sciences.
These ideas ring especially untrue considering the fact that Proof isn’t about math, really—it’s about genius, and madness. There’s just enough of what sound like real mathematical references (I’m not even going to pretend to be able to judge their accuracy or the appropriateness of their usage) sprinkled throughout the script to show that the playwright did his homework. But the heart of the play lies in the pursuit of something beautiful, something “elegant,” and whether this highest of human rewards is possible without some grave mental cost. Proof relies just enough on the always-dynamic relationship between genius and insanity—by far its strongest theme—to secure its place in the larger canon of American Realism.
In case you have any lingering doubts, girls can do math. They can also write plays. So go see Proof at the SLO Little Theatre to remember the moment when geek culture was about to hit its stride, in the interim between now and the next time they produce a play that begins with a female genius, rather than ending with one.
Arts Editor Erin C. Messer promised herself that after AP Calculus in high school, she would never have to do math again; send your humanities-related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.