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Indeterminacy in a Hyde Park Backyard: Proof at Red Branch Theatre Company

David Auburn's Proof, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, aims to be a neat little contraption, equal parts character-driven drama and intellectual whodunit. It comes pretty close. The setup: a middle-aged University of Chicago mathematician grappling with madness tries to entice his talented daughter to follow in his footsteps. After he dies, a notebook is found which contains an important mathematical proof: Is it hers or his, or somehow a joint effort? And is the daughter herself mad and in need of help, or is she on the contrary the most competent of the four characters in the play?

Answering either question requires that we resolve the mysteries of the relationship between father and daughter. For some time, up until the penultimate scene, in fact, the playwright does not tip his hand. And that is the point up to which the play works well. But then we basically know. Yet the author tries to keep the indeterminacy running for one last scene, up to the very last word of the script, when the audience really should have figured it out ten minutes earlier. And, as another critic has pointed out, the daughter's apparent lack of interest in her own brilliance and its apparent product - most pronounced in that last scene - invites the audience not to care as much either; if the daughter's claim to authorship is unimportant, so is her story. An even better play, therefore, might have left the issue unresolved, provoking a thousand conversations on the way back to the parking lot.

There are enough challenges, though, even in this slightly imperfect play, for most small theater companies. Columbia's Red Branch Theatre Company mostly rises to the occasion.

Key to the success of the enterprise has to be the character of Catherine, the daughter, here portrayed by Julia Heynen. It's an interesting role, because she must invite the audience's empathy and involvement, even though she cannot be too well known or understood by them. Heynen combines well the appealing and the unknowable. She is most winsome, perhaps, in her aggressive flirtations with Hal (Dustin Morris), a young University of Chicago faculty member, her father's last protégé ("What do you do for sex?"), and suitably offputting and inscrutable in her verbal duels with her sister Claire (Alex Keiper). And she is well supported by Morris, a young man with enough depth to be convincing as a probably somewhat older man and a quite advanced mathematician. Keiper also brings to life a character without the intellectual pretensions of the others, but possessed of a degree of sanity and achievement that at least in her own mind entitle her to judge and organize the others' lives. A thankless role in real life and probably underappreciated as a test of acting skill on the stage, as well.

The disappointment is Noel Milan as Robert, the father. You can (just) see the father and the madman in his character; but he does not for one second convince as a mathematician or an academic. It may be the unlaundered Bawlamer accent, it may be the apparently unthought-through line readings (although for that Jennifer Spieler's direction probably is also at fault). Whatever the reason, we are often forced to figure out Robert's role and function from the reactions of the other characters. Usually that suffices, but not always.

The set, by Thomas E. Cole, a back yard in a faculty neighborhood servicing the University of Chicago, is a solid piece of believable realism. As the playwright has conceded, Hyde Park is virtually a character in its own right, a place where the life of the mind can wax and wane at its own pace. An issue played out through the action, and unresolved at the end, is whether Catherine will move to New York, her sister's domain, or stay in Hyde Park. Cole does it well.

It is regrettable that this reviewer could not catch the play earlier in its run, which lasts only until July 17, although the performers will also be at Artscape in Baltimore on July 18. Catch it before it vanishes.

Proof, by David Auburn. Through July 17 at 9130-I Red Branch Road, Columbia, MD 21045. 410-997-9352. . Tickets $14-18. Sexual situations, pervasive adult language.


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