Listening Place “Proof”

3 Cast plus JTH

Kristi Reamers, Anne Mitchell, Richard Boynton, with Jeff Heyer, inset. Photo by MaryLee Sunseri

By Philip Pearce

THE LISTENING PLACE is offering four strong acting performances and a clear and insightful production of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning Proof at the Monterey Museum of Art.

At Sunday’s performance (there’s only one more, this coming Sunday) I was struck by the cast’s flexibility and freedom from what you might imagine would be the restraints of readers’ theater. They don’t read the play at you, they perform it. Characters move effortlessly off book when they need to confront one another, love scenes or character conflicts tend to happen face to face. In his clear, nuanced and masterful portrayal of a struggling mathematical genius named Robert, Jeffrey Heyer’s long and important soliloquy in Act Two is spoken to other characters, not to one of the music stands.

There is clear evidence throughout the afternoon that Listening Place has developed and honed some important skills needed for this distinctive dramatic art form.
Proof is set in and around the world of student and faculty life at millennial year University of Chicago and begins with a warm but slightly puzzling sequence between a noted prof named Robert and his gifted, adoring but erratic daughter Catherine.
Kristi Reimers brings an intense confidence combined with an intelligent sensitivity to the turmoil of feelings that make up the emotional world of Catherine. Her scenes with Robert are an exhilarating give-and-take between two troubled but lightning-struck spirits. The moment when she sees that his excited apparent return to full mental power after a period of academic stagnation is actually an explosion of delusional madness is heartbreaking to watch.

The play is built on a succession of discoveries, so it would be unfair to give away too much plot. “Proof” refers to a pivotal new piece of apparently original prime number math which Catherine may or may not have plagiarized from Robert, but the title goes deeper than that. This moody, brilliant, unkempt young woman needs but never gets proof that, clearly like her father in mathematical skill, she’s not also about to replicate his descent into clinical insanity. Is Hal, a young student of the late Robert (the charmingly laid back and sympathetic Richard Boynton,) right in insisting “There is nothing wrong with you?” Or does he have more than an academic interest in keeping her with him in Chicago and not off in New York with her older sister Claire?

Played strong, edgy and determined by the always interesting Anne Mitchell, Claire is pretty sure Catherine’s mood swings, indifference to personal appearance, chaotic housekeeping and habit of sleeping away whole mornings if not entire days aren’t care-giver exhaustion but signs of a coming mental breakdown. She wants to sell the family home and move Catherine into her New York apartment while easing this troubled younger sister into a program of discreet Big Apple psychiatric care.

Much of the play’s power lies in the way Auburn clearly delineates Catherine’s challenges but doesn’t supply definitive resolutions. It’s true the plagiarism charge seems to be finally settled, but only at some considerable cost to Catherine’s relationship with Hal, who has failed to recognize that with all her fits and starts she is incapable of lying or subterfuge.

But whether she is just a stressed-out mathematical genius or an incipient mental patient remains tantalizingly up in the air. At least in Auburn’s script.
If the present production has a weakness, it is in its failure to face that intriguing ambivalence. The fault, in my view, lies in the presentation of the Catherine/Claire relationship. Catherine, all explosive feeling and intense struggle, says pretty early on that she dislikes her sister. And little wonder. Compared to Catherine herself, Claire is middle-browed and conventional, but that doesn’t mean we are meant to despise her.

Director Linda Hancock and her fine cast, who get the rest of it so spot on, seem to have decided that Hal is the good guy and Clare the baddie. But if Claire is glib and manipulative it’s in a good cause. About to be married, she would be making a pretty deep personal sacrifice if, fresh from her honeymoon, she installed this explosive sibling into her New York household. If Catherine is headed for madness (and where’s the proof that she isn’t?) then Claire may be offering a more sincere and caring answer to

Catherine’s suffering than a spiraling mental decline in a big, messy Chicago house full of blighted memories of a dead father.

At Sunday’s performance, what Claire should have offered as smooth though ineffectual blandishments to her indignant kid sister were belted out as angry counter arguments. The resultant confrontation had a lot of fireworks, but the contrasting ways the sisters deal with conflict got lost in all the even-handed bickering.

Closing moments of the play offer a suggestion, a hope, that Hal is right about Catherine. But I don’t think we are meant to have proof, one way or the other.