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Family Figuring: Sarah Overman plays a young daughter coming to terms with her father (Robert Ernst), a famous mathematician gone mad.

Formula Drama

TheatreWorks factors an emotional equation into David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama 'Proof'

By Rob Pratt

THE ESOTERICA of crafting mathematical proofs for heady abstract concepts at first impression appears far removed from the impassioned world of theater. The mostly young, mostly male masters of the mathematical universe inhabit a solitary world of contemplation. They methodically approach a problem, building detailed, years-in-the-making analyses of worldly phenomena. When ready, they publish their proofs and await the exacting scrutiny of their peers who evaluate it against known concepts and techniques.

Actors, by contrast, trade on emotion. In the crucible of a play, a work of mere hours-length, they range through emotions, striving to convey the inner workings of the heart and to render universal truths through subtle inflection and gesture. Even when scrutinized by the toughest theater critic, an actor's craft provides few objective measures for evaluation.

For TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley, the two disciplines aren't so disparate. Take the case of contemporary math genius Andrew Wiles, who developed a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, a mathematical concept that has remained unproved for centuries, Kelley says.

"I saw a Nova show about him," he says. "And the whole thing was about the emotional side of it. They had to focus on Wiles' humanity because they couldn't explain what the guy is doing in the proof--it's so complex. What you get is an interview with this guy who, after working seven years for his first solution, and then it took him two more years to get it right, the final solution just came into his head. It was so powerful that he broke into tears just telling about it--and that's the world of humanity. That was so revealing to me."

That juxtaposition--the cold, calculating world of theoretical mathematics against a hothouse of emotion--suffuses David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Proof, which opens TheatreWorks' 2003 season Saturday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. It's a play that Kelley has wanted to bring to the South Bay since he first saw it on Broadway during its premiere run in 2001, and, he says, it's the perfect way to launch a season that looks at themes revolving around generations and genius.

The play involves four characters and three relationships. Catherine is a reclusive 25-year-old woman who cared for her math-genius, mentally ill father for five years until his death only days before the play opens. Robert, her father, inhabits the play both in Catherine's memory and in flashbacks to the yearlong period when his illness cleared and Catherine felt free to study theoretical math at university.

Hal, a University of Chicago Ph.D. candidate advised by Robert, reviews his mentor's final legacy of notes for any glimmer of left-behind genius and looks to Catherine for romance. Catherine's older sister, Claire, wonders if her younger sibling has inherited their father's illness along with his mathematical ability. Robert's death sets in motion a process of discovery in the lives of all the characters, Kelley says.

"It's a discovery of relationships, of developing relationships that everyone knows, and you realize that things can go one way or the other with the slightest breeze," he says. "The actors have to take a leap of faith because there are no proofs in theater--there is only process. Every choice that you make sets a huge number of directions in motion and relationships in motion. In the rehearsal process we really have been struck by the similarities to what mathematicians do."

Shotgun Beats

Process is critical to math, too, explains Eloise Hamann, a San Jose State University professor of math and computer science. Typically, big problems in theoretical mathematics aren't approached head-on, she says. A great proof often begins with experimentation, with trial and error and with proving smaller, related problems.

"You go a little ways in an approach to a problem, and even if you don't prove it, you may prove something related to it," she says. "You get partial results, and you hope that all the pieces can be sewn together."

Though no mathematician, Konstantin Stanislavski, in An Actor Prepares, a classic text on the craft of acting, recommends a similar method. Divide every scene into "beats" and then figure out what emotions, desires and motivations drive a character during each "beat."

"I have a shotgun approach," Hamann says, "and hopefully I can use some of the little pieces. Proofs are rated by correctness, of course, but also on how elegant they are--if they're shorter or use a clever turn."

For the players developing the characters in Proof, the outcome isn't nearly so definite as whether their portrayal is correct or not. Their work, however, must elegantly negotiate all the complex emotions in Auburn's script. Catherine struggles against her father's twin legacies--mental illness and mathematical ability--and she has no way to evaluate what portion of each she has received. Hal sees a mind brilliant with potential for mathematical genius. Claire sees a mind on the verge of emotional instability. Like the movie A Beautiful Mind, Proof suggests a fine line between genius and madness.

"Take the case of John Nash," Kelley says of the main character in A Beautiful Mind. "How far is it really between the two?"

Proof has also made Kelley reconsider the distance between the disciplines of mathematics and theater. On the surface of it, he says, theoretical math appears to be one of the most complex intellectual pursuits and completely devoid of emotion. Theater appears to be entirely about emotion, ruled by the heart instead of the head. But he continues, the two disciplines share a focus on process, on breaking a concept or problem into its constituent parts and striving to render a fundamental truth.

"I had an interesting experience when I saw the play live," Kelley continues. "I think I got the last ticket sold, so I had a seat that had a better view of the audience than of the stage--a great seat for an artistic director. It was a transfixing experience for the audience that I could witness in the way people shifted in their seat or nodded their heads when something in the play really hit as being true."

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Proof, a TheatreWorks production, previews June 18-20 at 8pm, opens June 21 at 8pm and runs Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm (plus 2pm June 22, 29 and July 5, 12; no shows July 4, 8) through July 13 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $26-$50. (650.903.6000)

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From the June 19-25, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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