There's been a lot of focus on the intellects of the father-daughter pair in Proof (at the Civic's Studio Theatre through Feb. 11). Robert's a highly creative, world-class mathematical genius, but also sporadically insane; his daughter Catherine has inherited either his genius or his curse. But Proof is really a psychological family drama, and Auburn is after more than arcane formulas; he wants to explore what it takes to deliver actual, palpable proofs of generosity and love.
In the central role of Catherine, Wonder Russell offers proof of her vulnerability, proof of her rage and abundant proof of her acting ability. For one thing, she pulls off the subtleties of screen acting while managing to project to an entire theater. Shades of assertiveness and anxiety flicker across her face; somehow she manages to distribute the emotion all around the house. She's loving and loathing, vulnerable and then angry. She displays genuine enthusiasm for the beauties of higher math, then genuine fear over the onset of (symbolic) cold temperatures. Like her father (who's older, however, and facing death), she shows her fear of the future. Sometimes completing a proof or carrying through with a relationship involves risk.
Sometimes in Act Two, Russell seems too whiny, though that's mostly because Auburn has written a couple of confrontation scenes that begin to repeat themselves. At two and a half hours with intermission, Auburn's script felt about one revelatory scene too long.
A couple of scenes are dislocating for the audience, in an effective way: Are we watching reality or fantasy? Are we witnessing what happened objectively or what's felt subjectively? Turns out that the pinnacles of math, like the valleys of the heart, involve introspection and art. They can't simply be quantified. In a play in which the audience and Catherine herself wonder about her sanity, Auburn has a way of turning the tables and getting the audience to question its own understanding of what's going on.
Marianne McLaughlin's direction takes advantage. From the symbolic long shadow that Robert casts at his first appearance, to the natural mid-conversation swirling of the action from the back porch out to the patio and back, to the way that lovers tentatively circle one another during the checking-each-other-out phase, McLaughlin guides her actors naturalistically without losing necessary emphasis on the thematic high points. She quickly sketches how the two sisters really don't know one another very well; she allows for the oscillation of affection and resentment between siblings. McLaughlin's direction helps us appreciate that living intensely doesn't have to involve the kind of rah-rah freneticism that our society champions; sometimes intensity lies in the quiet life of the mind.
As Hal the grad student, Paul D. Villabrille skimps on the social awkwardness but lives up to the role's generosity. Auburn has provided Hal with a couple of great faux pas, and Villabrille plays those moments well. But while avoiding the nerd stereotype, he falls into the handsome leading-man trap: Villabrille isn't condescending enough (to Catherine) when the script demands it, or manipulative or deceitful enough when his character's ambition calls for it. Hal is preoccupied with his discipline, ambitious to succeed, and short on responsiveness to others. Villabrille's likable in the role, but he doesn't capture all of Hal.
In the most thankless role of this quartet -- Claire, the responsible older sister and mother-figure -- Rita O'Farrell acquits herself reasonably well in a plot-device part. Claire does go on and on about the virtues of New York, New York -- but somewhere around the edges of her overeager smile, O'Farrell conveys the strain of the insecure yuppie who means well but doesn't fully understand her family.
J.P. O'Shaughnessy, as the genius father, demonstrated evident affection for the favored daughter -- Catherine, the one nearer in temperament to himself. When he raged at her, his intensity betrayed a mind teetering on the brink. When caught in his vulnerability, he became quite touching indeed. Despite a couple of distracting mannerisms -- crooking an elbow and holding a hand aloft like a game-show host, bringing the tips of all his fingers together to signify thought -- O'Shaughnessy strides like a patriarch through most of this show. As a man who's supposed to be exceptional, craggy, fragile, he's convincing.
This is a very good production of a thought-provoking play -- one that the packed opening-night audience clearly enjoyed, and which ought to be seen by a wide variety of local theatergoers.