I have ranked David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Proof,” among my top ten favorite scripts of all time since first encountering it in a directing class over five years ago. Yet despite having read this drama dozens of times, it wasn’t until just last week that I finally had the opportunity to see it performed live, at Central Square Theater in Cambridge.
To my surprise, even after all those readings, attending this production of “Proof,” produced by The Nora Theatre Company, felt like an entirely new experience, due largely to its successful approach in blending Auburn’s incredibly smart and engaging story with the personal vision of director, Michelle M. Aguillon.
“Proof” revolves around the character of Catherine, a sharp and sarcastic girl who is in mourning after the death of her father Robert, a famous mathematician who has passed away after four years of declining mental health. As Catherine works to recover from the loss, she is accompanied by her overbearing sister Claire, and her father’s PhD student Hal, who spends the days following Robert’s death combing through his journals to try and find a glimpse of the mathematician’s brilliance among the jumbled musings. When Hal does in fact find something of note within one of the journals—a long and highly complicated proof that has the ability to make an unparalleled impact on the mathematical world—the characters are forced to examine the reality of Catherine’s last four years with her father, and make decisions that could impact Catherine, Claire, and Hal’s lives forever.
Aguillon’s successful telling of this story lies heavily in her ability to relate to the material. In her “Note from the Director,” for example, she writes in detail about her decision to cast Asian actors in the roles of Catherine, Robert, and Claire, referencing her upbringing as a first-generation Filipino-American and how that impacted the way her family dealt with the loss of her father.
“I approached my mother about directing ‘Proof’ and the portrayal of this widowed Asian father raising his two girls alone, while having mental issues,” Aguillon pens. “[Through] my mother’s opinions, along with each cast member’s own Asian points of view on family…We concluded that challenging times force families to deal with survival, ambition, identity, self-doubt, inner strength, letting go, and ultimately, sacrifice and love.”
This analysis and deeper understanding of how different people respond to death appears to have also shaped Aguillon’s approach to the script. Leaving little at surface-value, this production boldly explores the various levels of mourning, both through in-scene dialogue and uniquely integrated moments of silence that occur during transitions. Where another director may have relied on music or lighting design to facilitate these transitions, Aguillon instead uses them to highlight the private or more complex emotions these characters do not have the chance to explore within the scenes.
Catherine (Lisa Nguyen), for example, uses sarcasm to mask a lot of her pain throughout the play appearing snarky and disengaged at times when it is clear there is more below the surface. It is in Aguillon’s brilliantly crafted moments of silence, when Catherine is left alone sitting her father’s chair on the porch, for instance, that the audience gets the opportunity to see that mask begin to slip, and get a glimpse of the depth of her sadness that she is otherwise hiding. Allowing the audience that chance to witness and understand this pain is a great addition to the story, which Aguillon has weaved seamlessly into Auburn’s already multi-dimensional plot.
Another powerful moment of transition occurs when Claire (Cheryl Daro) appears drunkenly on the porch after her father’s memorial party, which has turned wild after his other PhD students show up. It’s a moment that starts quite funny—with Daro masterfully portraying the signature stiletto-stumble and delayed demeanor of a drunk girl—but one which ultimately takes a turn towards heartbreaking, as Claire makes her way over to her father’s chair and silently raises her glass in a toast to him. The power of this moment, enhanced by Daro’s excellent combination of humor and sincerity, comes from the fact that up until this point, Claire has appeared composed and practical in regards to her father’s death; this is really the first hint of vulnerability and pure sadness we see from her, and its substantial impact on the character and the rest of the story are just a testament to Daro’s skill and Aguillon’s direction.
Daro isn’t the only standout performance in this production, however. Michael Tow’s Robert depicts the heartbreaking highs and lows of someone dealing with dementia with grace and sincerity, while Avery Bargar’s Hal adds a much needed upbeat dynamic to this drama, providing countless lighthearted moments that nicely breakup the more intense within the show. Bargar also manages to strike an impressive balance between charmingly sincere and adorably aloof, creating an incredibly authentic portrayal of a guy who has found himself highly involved in another family’s tragedy.
And yet, despite the backdrop to this story being a tragedy, Auburn’s script offers far more than just a story of coping with loss. The audience is brought on a true journey, with twists, turns, and reveals that are meant to leave them questioning everything they know about these people and their history. While this is something that is accomplished on some level within this production, there are also some instances where the reveals are brushed over or rushed through rather than embraced, which reduces the potential for impact on the audience.
In the same regard, there are many moments in the play in which the characters allow their tensions to spill over and end up shouting at one another. These moments, while performed with fantastic, realistic pacing and emotion, find themselves built to a breaking point before the climax of the fight occurs, leaving audiences feeling as exhausted as if they too had just been yelling. It is a matter of choosing when the stakes should be raised and how high to raise them, and although in the midst of dealing with a death, our rational compass of emotions is often thrown for a loop, it would have been nice to see a stronger level of control from Aguillon in the midst of the chaos.
Still, this production is one which more than warrants a visit to Central Square Theater. The truly genuine performances of this cast, along with Aguillon’s unique artistic vision, make it not only a beautiful piece of theater, but also a great start to The Nora Theatre Company’s 2018/2019 season.
“Proof” runs through February 18th at Central Square Theater. For tickets visit www.centralsquaretheater.org or contact the Box Office at (617) 576-9278, Extension 1. Central Square Theater is located at 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, MA.