Review by Grace Swadling
David Auburn's ‘Proof’ is a two-act exploration of family, sacrifice, mental health, trust and betrayal. ‘Proof’ centers on Catherine, a young woman on the eve of her 25th birthday, who has spent the last five years caring for her father, a famous mathematician experiencing a rapidly declining grasp of reality. Over the course of a weekend, Catherine must deal with growing fears over own sanity, the possibility of romance and a sister whom she believes abandoned her. The show provides a thought-provoking look at the way in which the concepts of trust and proof coexist in our world and the power that they have when yielded by the people we love.
The set of this production of ‘Proof’ was fantastic; a simple but effective design that was a group effort between director Caitlin Hill and Justin Harrison, who not only helped build and decorate the set but also served as lighting designer. Harrison’s lighting was again simplistic and yet sophisticated, with soft fairy lights that twinkled in mathematical patterns as the main feature of the set. This combined with Tony Brumpton’s sound design, which constantly underscored the text and elevated it in just the right moments, worked to provide a fully realized space for the actors and the text to be the focus.
Ad Astra was a lovely space for this text - it was intimate and yet spacious. The actors were clear and articulate, able to just stand and talk and listen to each other, and yet give so much to us as an audience. There were a few opening night stumbles which the cast handled with grace, and there was fortunately a lovely, responsive audience which is always a win, especially on an opening night (although, just a heads up, there was a 9pm finish on the ticket but it was more like a 10pm finish).
Caitlin Hill has pulled together an incredibly strong cast, each one of whom brought wonderful energy to this production. All of the cast worked well off each other; there was an ease and familiarity that allowed these characters to feel fleshed out and able to exist in the world of ‘Proof’ together.
Janaki Gerard’s Catherine was both abrasive and warm, her cynicism and prickliness motivated by the sacrifice of her youth. Gerard allowed us to see the broken parts of Catherine that were holding on to fear and resentment, as well as the parts that were confident, strong and emboldened.
Doll Hunt was utterly believable as the brilliant yet slightly unstable Robert, whose love for his daughter was not quite enough to hold his illness at bay. The transition between Robert in moments of lucidity and moments where he succumbed to his rapidly declining mental health was quietly heartbreaking, and Hunt played both versions of Robert with earnest sincerity and care.
Aimee Duroux charmed as Catherine’s over-bearing, successful sister Claire, who swoops in to ‘save the day’. Her Claire was played almost as the comic relief but was simultaneously presented as a complex character who carried her own pain and sacrifices. The tension between the two sisters was played out beautifully between Gerard and Duroux, with moments of genuine affection working against their conflicting character differences.
Pierce Gordon was dynamic to watch as Hal, the bumbling and nervous but affably charming grad student who is determined to find valuable work in the 103 notebooks Robert left behind. It was extremely enjoyable as an audience to watch Gordon bring Hal to life. His chemistry with Gerard was excellent, he made incredibly interesting and bold acting choices with almost unhinged and hilarious ad libs and even when his character wasn’t the central point of focus he was present in the scene. This only helped flesh out the character of Hal to make him feel real, and his subsequent actions throughout the play more weighted.
Indeed, the actors made the greatest effort not to reduce these characters to caricatures. They remained grounded in the reality of the world and there were several lovely tender moments between characters juxtaposed with the other scenes of heightened emotion. The first act did seem stronger than the second; once the stakes shifted there was a level of hyper-tension where emotions almost got the better of the cast towards the end. The play does feel like it was building up to a specific point, where all the characters had the potential to have ulterior motives revealed. Instead, the play reasserts hope as the end point, encompassing Hill’s urge for the play to be “offered as a way humans can redeem themselves. We do not give up. We take responsibility for our actions. We learn to do better.”
This notion of ‘doing better’ is still as relevant an issue as it was in 2001, perhaps even more so, especially when looking through the lens of the #METOO era. Catherine offers the most intimate part of herself, both metaphorically and physically and it is thrown in her face, calling into question the notion of having belief in women, in honoring the trust we have in those who trust us. It was hard for the play not to hit a personal nerve at this moment but I would argue that it was the way in which Catherine is treated by both her sister and Hal which is the crux of this play. Human beings are messy and complicated but all we can do is try to be better, offer trust, listen to your loved ones, really listen and above all, hope for a society in which humans can own up to their mistakes and begin to rebuild trust. The play offers a chance for this to exist and play out in our modern socio-political climate in a way that is a testament to both the cast and crew.