David Auburn's "Proof," winner of a Tony, a Pulitzer Prize and a fistful of other awards for the best Broadway play of 2001, is a slim, sneaky wonder of theatrical storytelling. Short on poetry, short on portent, even relatively short on plot, it would be easy to underestimate the dramatic potential in Auburn's plain-spoken script.
When the play is brought to life by a quartet of sensitive, insightful actors, though, as it is in TheatreWorks' current production, the power of "Proof" is undeniable.
Perhaps the most striking of Auburn's accomplishments is that he makes us care deeply about the career struggles of people immersed in the rarefied world of abstract mathematics. The key, of course, is Auburn's focus: the story lies in the people, in the universal trials and truths of their lives and relationships.
Thirty years ago, Robert was a mathematical wunderkind, upending several branches of the discipline before the age of 25 and landing a professorship at the University of Chicago. A few years later, the onset of mental illness cut short his career. (Though a diagnosis is never specified, schizophrenia seems likely; Robert speaks of decoding messages from aliens in the Dewey decimal numbers on library books.)
When his wife died and his elder daughter moved away, his younger daughter Catherine dropped out of college to become his full-time caretaker. Raised on proofs and prime numbers, Catherine has clearly inherited much of her father's genius. But as her own 25th birthday approaches, she worries that she may have inherited his madness as well.
Infusing Catherine with palpable intelligence and vulnerability, actress Michelle Beck pulls off the show's most crucial feat: creating a central character with whom the audience can empathize, despite her depression and often scathing sarcasm.
L. Peter Callender plays Robert, bringing a fine vocal and emotional range to the character. While he teeters on a tightrope between delusion and lucidity, his love for his gifted daughter is a bright, unwavering tether.
Into this turmoil come the play's two remaining characters. The first is Hal (Lance Gardner), one of Robert's former students and a potential romantic interest for Catherine. Hal is intent on combing Robert's papers for any unpublished discoveries, despite Catherine's insistence that her father was incapable of productive work during his long illness. When Hal finds a notebook containing a complex proof that could settle a centuries-old conjecture regarding prime numbers, he believes his search is vindicated, but the authorship of the revolutionary proof is less than clear.
The second arrival is Catherine's older sister, Claire (Ashley Bryant), who has returned to Chicago to put things in order: the house, the funeral, and, first and foremost, Catherine.
Claire could easily be the bad guy in this tale, but Bryant and director Leslie Martinson wisely steer clear of that interpretation. Bryant and Beck keep the sibling squabbles on a low simmer in their early scenes. Hints of resentment bubble up occasionally, in deliciously believable ways, as when Claire tries to force her favorite conditioner on her sister. ("Hair is dead," Catherine retorts. "You can't make it healthy.")
With the conflict downplayed, it's clear that Claire's overbearing manner stems from genuine concern for her sister, and the audience is forced to grapple with her assertion that putting their father in a psychiatric care facility might have been the best thing for both Robert and Catherine.
All of Auburn's characters are multifaceted individuals, and his script works hard to challenge common stereotypes. While Hal is in some ways a typical geek -- socially awkward and physically stiff -- he is also part of a group of mathematicians who party hard, play in a rock band and "get laid surprisingly often."
Similarly, Catherine's struggle to be taken seriously as a mathematician in her own right forces the audience to confront the stereotype of math as an exclusively male endeavor. This makes "Proof" a particularly apt piece for Silicon Valley, where the paucity of women in STEM careers is a perennial topic of conversation and concern.
Finally, Martinson's decision to stage Auburn's piece with an African-American cast challenges another stereotype: the assumption that all mathematicians are not just men, but white men.
The production is technically impressive. Steven B. Mannshardt's lights and Gregory Robinson's sound design support the story without being intrusive.
Annie Smart's scenic design is both gorgeous and eminently fitting. The back porch of Robert's suburban home is strewn with fallen leaves and withered plants in pots. The paint is peeling, and decades of backyard detritus have accumulated in every corner. Through the double sliding doors, a bright interior reveals an expansive shelving unit packed with books. The whole suggests a vibrant life of the mind falling into disarray and decrepitude.
Even by TheatreWorks' usual high standards, this is an outstanding production, one in which Auburn's themes -- mortality, inspiration, love and irreducible uncertainty -- are captured perfectly ... in a world where proof is elusive.
What: "Proof," presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Through Nov. 1. Tuesday-Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Matinee on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2 p.m.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.