VST’s “Proof” proves to be more than meets the eye



Mikaela Krimm

At one point in “Proof,” David Auburn’s Pulitzer-prize and Tony Award-winning play, Robert, a genius mathematician at the University of Chicago, is describing the method by which he comes to his groundbreaking conclusions.

“I’m not talking about divine inspiration,” he says. “It’ll take work to shape these things.”

Work—much like the kind Villanova Student Theater—has been putting into its lively and thought-provoking production of the 2000 Broadway play. Upon witnessing the spirited and inspired performance by the all-student cast, however, you might mistake it for something divine. 

VST has been rehearsing the show since just before fall break, and it opens next week in St. Mary’s auditorium. Co-director Alexa Causey, a junior Cultural Studies and Journalism double-major from San Diego, did not hesitate to admit the amount of time that went into producing “Proof.”

“It’s a lot,” she said. “We rehearsed for three to four hours, three days a week for two months.” 

That kind of effort is almost required when attempting to bring to life such a well-known and well-respected play. “Proof,” which debuted off-Broadway in May of 2000, was transferred to Broadway by October of the same year. The plot concerns Catharine, the 25-some year old daughter of a mathematical genius who has recently died, and who spent the last few years of his life wading through a crippling mental illness. His long-time student Hal discovers, upon his mentor’s death, a notebook filled with the answer to a seemingly unsolvable mathematical problem—but the source of the proof is not what it first seems. 

The play’s heroine, Catharine, wrestles with countless forces, including the societal pressures of the scientific world, concern over inheriting her father’s mental illness and a budding relationship with the ambitious but naïve Hal. Auburn’s script is unreserved in its presentation both of gender stereotypes—Catharine herself is brilliant, but overlooked due to her sex—and of the dual nature of genius. 

A 2005 movie version of the play starred Gwenyth Paltrow as Catharine and Jake Gyllenhaal as Hal. Directed by John Madden, the production earned modest critical acclaim. Madden’s film added characters and setting to beef up the visual appeal, but the beauty of “Proof” is certainly purest when performed the way it was originally intended. 

With only four characters, “Proof” is sparsely cast, but the University’s actors do a fantastic job of bringing depth and personality to the material. Junior Kaleigh Flynn-Rosanski’s Catharine is more Gwenyth Paltrow than Mary-Louise Parker (who acted in the Broadway debut), with her thin frame and light blonde hair. 

These dainty traits hardly veil the cool bite she brings to her character. High strung, cynical and extremely guarded, Flynn-Rosanski experiments with Catharine’s emotions as she grapples with a plethora of internal struggles: desperation to assert her relevance as a person, fatigue from caring for her aging, senile father and an overwhelming anxiety about inheriting his insanity. Bitterness drips from every sentence, to a point at which you can almost see it pooling on the stage. 

As the mentee of Catharine’s recently deceased father, senior Noah Thacker plays a very amicable Hal, likeable and genuine. Thacker is adept at simultaneously balancing both Hal’s good-natured sensitivity and his irrepressible ambition, as the character works his way carefully and persistently toward Catharine. Flynn-Rosanski is brusque as she pushes away Hal’s advances, with cries of “I don’t want any protégés around!”

The gentle touch of romance, though not utterly crucial to the plot, is yet another facet adding to the complexity of Catherine’s life—not that the audience doesn’t see it coming from the start. Catherine is suddenly more human when she’s interacting with Hal, lending another dimension to what had, at first, appeared a predictable character. The couple is cute and believable in their flirtations. 

However, the relationship between Hal and Catharine is but a vehicle for the exploration of more complex themes. His use of the diminutive “Cathy,” when kindly (and condescendingly) explaining that Robert’s mathematical proofs are too lofty for her comprehension, sends a shudder through the audience—at least the females. Questioning the validity behind gender stereotypes is one of playwright Auburn’s primary sources of provocation.

Another one of these talking points concerns the double-edged sword of genius, and begs the question: Where falls the line between brilliance and insanity? And is insanity what it is merely because so few people possess the faculties to comprehend it? 

Casey Duff, a sophomore from Long Island who plays Catharine’s understudy, agrees that it’s hard not to think about insanity when considering “Proof.” However, she adds that the intense reality of depression is another striking theme.

Indeed, the play is far from a jovial romp in the park. The length and depth of Catharine’s blues casts a cloud of melancholy over the entire set, not least of all when the character is engaging with her sister, Claire.

Claire is the quintessential city woman, pragmatic, energetic and recently engaged, but more interested in hair products and vegetarian chili than in the wants of her younger sister. She lives her glossy New York Life well within the lines. Junior Megan Malafronte brings to Claire the spirit of an uptown girl, costumed in a black skirt-suit and impossibly high heels. Her frustration with Catharine is evident from almost the very first line, although she makes frequent, warm-hearted attempts to redeem herself. During a recent preview, Catherine and Claire’s interaction played as one of the most entertaining scenes, and the two girls could have passed for real sisters.  

 “I remember when we first told Megan that we got the role,” Causey says. “She asked who else got the part and when we told her Kaleigh she was like ‘Yes! That’s so exciting we were vibing so well, I know we’ll be perfect sisters!’ So yea, they’ve worked really well together.” 

It’s not just Malafronte and Flynn-Rosanski who are stunningly compatible; the entire cast has chemistry, both on and off the stage. 

“I think we’ve been really lucky in having a cast that’s so full of good ideas and they’re all such characters, even offstage,” Causey says. “It’s really fun.”

Despite the austerity of the set—it’s comprised of a single, 20-foot long porch, upon which all of the action takes place—and the small size of the ensemble, Proof’s plot hurtles along in vivid color. Much of the play is centered on the idea of a single notebook and the contents within. There are a number of dramatic peaks and valleys, as the emotions of the characters flare up and subside. But the notebook, i.e., the numbers and equations at the heart of the story, remain constant. Viewing the play from this angle, the audience is made to realize the instability of human beings and the relative fragility of their minds. It’s a paradox, that objects of such machine-like efficiency, capable of conceiving, harnessing and ordering a world full of numbers, cannot control themselves. 

Causey enjoyed tinkering with such fundamental matters of human existence, and this play contains multiple. She asserts that the members of VST loved “Proof” for its relevance and modernity.  

“I think the entire idea of finding yourself within a profession, putting yourself in context, and at the same time establishing yourself as an individual in your field is something we are all going to go through really soon,” she said.  

But before you take off into the great unknown that is life after school, allow yourself to become immersed in the spirit of intellect and the freedom of artistic expression that is so coveted outside these collegiate walls.  Nothing so perfectly captures the marriage of these two pursuits as the dramatic self-examination that is David Auburn’s “Proof.” 

About a third of the way into the play, Hal expresses a difference in the way he perceives mathematics from Robert, who had so emphatically asserted its reliance on human efforts. 

“The work is beautiful,” Hal’s line reads. “It’s streamlined, like a 90 mile-an-hour fastball.” Thacker’s eyes light up when he delivers the line, and the audience is left with no doubt as to the truth behind its message—math, what may seem a cold and colorless field of study, possesses its own indivisible radiance. VST’s production of “Proof” is equally radiant as it strives to convey such a paradox. 

The play will run from Nov. 18-22 in St. Mary’s Auditorium. Show times are 8 p.m. with an additional 2 o’clock matinee on Saturday.

Tickets are $7 for students, and are available either at the door, or for advance purchase in the Connelly Center.