What can we ever be completely sure of? What can we prove? Sanity? Genius? Love?
David Auburn's 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof asks these questions and director Vincent M. Lancisi's production at Everyman Theatre examines them with a depth of feeling that exudes insight and compassion.
"Depth of feeling" might sound like an unlikely expression for a play ostensibly about mathematics. But Proof is about much more than math. Although the play's main characters are a brilliant mathematician and his talented grown daughter, the relationships that matter in Proof are not between numbers, but between father and daughter, between sisters and between lovers.
Everyman has, you should pardon the expression, not only "done the math" and gotten all of this emotional underpinning exactly right, it has mounted a production that equals if not excels the play's original staging on Broadway and subsequently on tour (it played the Mechanic Theatre two seasons ago).
Not that those weren't polished productions, but Everyman reaches even more profound recesses of the heart. This is due primarily to the flawless casting and performances of Megan Anderson as Catherine, the daughter, and Carl Schurr as her father, Robert.
Catherine is suffering from depression when we meet her. It soon becomes clear that this has been brought on by her complex feelings for her widowed father, whom she has spent the last five years caring for, ever since he, in his words, "went bughouse."
The precipitating event for Catherine's bout of depression comes as a surprise that I don't want to spoil here. Her despondency is rooted, however, in ongoing fears that she may be too much like the father she's always adored - a man with a genius for mathematics as well as a history of mental illness.
Anderson plays Catherine as a young woman who, with the exception of occasional outbursts of anger, almost seems to be underwater, drowning in melancholy. In a particularly anguished scene, Anderson plumbs the core of her character's heartbreak when Catherine dissolves into quiet sobs after hearing herself praised in one of her father's journal entries.
Schurr's portrayal of Robert is similarly stirring. Not only does he look every bit the aging professor, from his comfy tweed sport jacket to the shock of gray hair that falls on his forehead, but more significantly, he leaves no doubt about the strength of the connection Robert feels to his beloved daughter and the terror he feels when he realizes he is, once again, losing his grip on his sanity.
Two other characters figure into the drama, and both, in lesser hands, could easily be caricatures. As Catherine's controlling older sister Claire, however, Deborah Hazlett makes it clear that genuine love and concern are underlying Claire's seemingly cold, take-charge attitude. And as Hal, one of Robert's former grad students, Robert McClure fleshes out this self-described math "geek" by allowing the character to mature before our eyes.
Both Claire and Hal have agendas in Proof, and both impinge on Catherine's fragile state of mind. Claire wants her sister to move to New York with her; Hal wants her to give him complete access to the notebooks her father filled with scribblings during the worst of his mental illness. In a sense, these two are competing for Catherine's future and even her soul, and Lancisi's direction keeps the tension of that struggle as taut as a tightrope.
The performances are further aided by designer Daniel Ettinger's stunningly imaginative set, whose key elements are blackboards covered with equations. When illuminated by Jay A. Herzog's ethereal lighting, these blackboards turn an otherwise conventional domestic setting - the back porch of a Chicago house - into a place suffused with the mystery and magic of genius.
"Machinery" is the word Robert uses to describe his mind, especially when it is working "full-blast" and "all the cylinders are firing." The machinery works splendidly in Everyman's production - one of the most beautifully realized in this theater's history.
Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 29