Proof: A Dramatic Night of Theater by a Pulitzer Winner at Ja’Duke

Robert (Jay Golden) and his daughter Catherine (Caitlyn Waynelovich) in Proof, at Ja'Duke Theater.
Robert (Jay Golden) and his daughter Catherine (Caitlyn Waynelovich) in Proof, at Ja’Duke Theater.

At Ja’Duke Theater in Turners Falls tonight, we enjoyed another challenging dramatic performance, of the 2001 Pulitzer-winning play Proof, by David Auburn, that was directed by local DJ Nick Danjer.

Catherine (Caitlyn Waynelovich)
Catherine (Caitlyn Waynelovich)

The actors held their own through complex dialogue and expressed compelling anguish, working with a script that hits a lot of hot buttons and covers a lot of ground. I was impressed when I saw this on Broadway in 2000, and I was impressed tonight 22 years later.

It’s a situation many of us know too well, that uncomfortable time when a parent becomes unable to think clearly, and the dread of dementia looms.  Robert (Jay Golden) is a famed mathematician, one with a following, was a legend at the University of Chicago. But his time had come and gone, and though he still has fans, at the end he was no longer able to solve the big problems that make the theoretical physicists drool.

His daughter Catherine (Caitlyn Waynelovich) is also into math, not like her dad was, but she is interested and is taking courses at Northwestern. She just might have inherited some of pop’s math genius…or not.  She also can see what happened to Robert at the end, after she spent decades living at home taking care of him. What if she inherits the dementia, too?

actors proof
Jimmy Murphy and Caitlyn Waynelovich in Proof.

The play uses flashbacks to give us a sense of what Robert was like before his passing, and we see Catherine struggle, when the words that the great mathematician wrote in his notebooks turn out to be the rambling of a person with dementia, not any new math theory.  Yet painfully, we watch as Robert encourages his daughter to go through it with him. Sorry, not going there, Dad.

Into the mix comes Harold “Hal” Dobbs, (Jimmy Murphy), math geek and big fan of Robert. He has a fond memory of when he came over to the sage professor’s home and chanced to meet Catherine his daughter back four years ago. She remembers too. They are reunited when Hal tells them that he wants to study the 103 notebooks of math problems Robert left behind in his study.  He turns out to be a pretty nice guy besides being her father’s biggest fan.

In his research, Hal finds evidence of a groundbreaking math proof in the notebooks. One scene dramatically ends when Catherine blurts out that she, not dad, wrote it. Whoa!

So the challenge of the subsequent scenes is how did she?  Why is the handwriting so similar to Roberts? How could she have ever, in a million light years, figured this out?  Her estranged sister Claire (Martha Devine) is at the house, helping to settle things in Chicago and move Catherine back to New York with her. She’s got it all figured out, she’s even got their father’s house on the market.   There is some bitterness from Catherine since as in so many families, one sibling has flown the coop while the other works selflessly to care for the parent.

But the math problem…we have a sorta-consensus that it was just too much for Catherine to have written. Yet we know that at the end of his life Robert was only able to write nonsense across the page, not any more math.

So it was her.

We don’t get a full wrapped and easy ending to this challenging story about dementia and the difficulty of taking care of older generations. We are given a simple premise…Hal puts aside his skepticism and accepts that yup, Catherine just might have inherited that math talent after all.   And despite sister Claire gunning hard to get Catherine to give up the Windy City for the big Apple, we’re not so sure that will happen either, since Hal has gotten her to fall in love with him.

It’s a complex script with lots of long scenes with the actors bitterly arguing about contentious issues, and the hard to resolve fact that only the smartest people in the world could even get close to understanding what the math proofs mean and deciphering if they are accurate.  Nope, we just gotta trust them on this, I guess.

The only fault in this production was that there was nothing in the program that explained the backstory about this fascinating award-winning work. The audience benefits when some explanations are provided that give context to the show and the playwright’s intentions.

Proof, directed by Nick Danjer at Ja’Duke Theater,  Industrial Road Turners Falls. Shows Sunday August 21 2 pm and Friday-Saturday August 27-28 7 pm, Sunday August 29 2 pm