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18 Mar 2019

It All Adds Up: Desert Ensemble's 'Proof' Is a Well-Acted Play—and You Don't Need to Like Math to Enjoy It

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Sam Benson Smith and Kelley Moody in Proof. Sam Benson Smith and Kelley Moody in Proof. Jerome Elliott

It’s about math.

Oh no! Math was my worst subject in school, and here we are confronted with Proof, a play about real mathematical geniuses—the kind you see standing in front of an entire blackboard filled with incomprehensible squiggles. The Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has brought Proof to the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club—but even if you are as bad as I am with numbers, there is nothing to fear.

Proof, written by David Auburn, won the Pulitzer and the Tony in 2001. The setting, here designed by Lauren Bright with lighting by Ashton J. Bolanos, is a modest Chicago home’s back yard. The house is inhabited by a math professor and his adult daughter, whom we meet in the first scene.

Robert (Larry Dyekman) emerges from the house to find his daughter Catherine (Kelley Moody) has fallen asleep outdoors at 1 a.m. She is dressed (by costume designer Frank Cazares) in awful moth-eaten sweat pants, bedroom slippers and an oversized cranberry cardigan. Her sulky attitude and slovenly appearance, however, can’t hide Moody’s flawless complexion and bountiful hair, and she gives us a finely tuned interpretation of her role. Dyekman, in a well-thought-out and underplayed performance that shows off his skills, is a believable father and mathematician. The two converse about their relationship, his “illness,” her inherited math aptitude and, oh yes, the fact that he is … how shall I put this … dead.

In the next scene, we meet Hal, played by a perfectly cast Sam Benson Smith; Hal is a former student of Robert’s who is now a math professor himself at age 28. He is the quintessential nerd, with all the assets of a genius—for example, he’s also a drummer in a rock band with other dweeb mathematicians by night, and he wears a red T-shirt with the symbol for pi emblazoned on the front. “I owe him,” Hal says about Robert, ferreting through the great man’s countless notebooks that were left behind, trying to discover what he was working on in his final years. The audience sees Hal only in profile for about 99 percent of the time he is onstage—an unusual choice. (See how I used numbers there?)

Fireworks explode between Hal and Catherine when she accuses him of theft, and we begin to unravel the story of her battle with higher education. (She dropped out.) There are many references to that unanswerable conundrum: How much of genius is inherited, and how much of it is affected by education and environment? And what, besides our brains, do we inherit from our parents? Their problems, too? Also: How insane do you need to be to warrant being locked up? Where does a savant’s eccentricity leave off and incomprehensibility start? What pushes brainiac people over the line into actual mental illness?

Enter Claire, Catherine’s sister now living in New York, to take charge, smoothly played by Lee Rice. Contrasts between sisters are endlessly fascinating, and director Jerome Elliott—also the company’s artistic director—has, with assistant director Sierra Barrick, made the most of the comparisons here. You will particularly like one scenario in which the two girls assume the exact same arms-folded position (always the default stance for Claire), with both staring forward like ancient Egyptian statues as they converse. Rice offers a masterful performance, with crisp gestures, keen focus, great diction, clever use of her eyes and some excellent “takes.”

Mathematicians, we are told, peak at about the age of 23, and feel it is all downhill from there. It is a closed community with plenty of jealousy and childish behavior … but they apparently really love to party, too! Each one is desperately searching for that special equation, formula or theorem that will help make their name historic. Their lives revolve around that search and discovery, and its “proof.” That, apparently, is the Holy Grail in this field—when all other mathematicians must accept and agree with your new truth. In this vein, Act 1 ends with possibly the best cliffhanger ever.

In Act 2, we are treated to a flashback from four years before—so Dad returns, bringing with him a couple of actual laughs, as opposed to the rather grim mood of Act 1. Robert is a silver fox with an expressive face and natural gestures—but Catherine dreads having to pay the same price that her father did for his gift. “The machinery,” he calls his mind. Yet how many of his issues might just be sleep deprivation, or other ancillary problems?

We wonder a lot about this very cerebral play. For example, why is the wife/mother never mentioned by Claire or Catherine or Robert—even once? Why are there so many F-bombs dropped? Although Claire is apparently a currency analyst, which would certainly require smarts, why did she not inherit the same size gift for numbers that Catherine did? What is the cost for each IQ point? Is it better to forgo the big gift and be better adjusted, more stable, in “real” life? “Mathematicians are insane,” declares one character.

There is very little action in this play; it all takes place above the neck. So the actors are given lots of difficult lines, which they all manage well. However, there are some errors being made onstage, such as shuffling feet—not a good idea on this stage’s squeaky floor boards—or pretending to drink but forgetting to also pretend to swallow, or dropping the volume at the end of a sentence.

Proof is a well-acted play—and you don’t have to be good with numbers to enjoy it.

Proof, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 24, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25, and the play runs about two hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

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