A renowned mathematical genius once stood on the porch steps of his old, Chicago house in a horrific rage. He had truly succumbed to his mental illness and could no longer practice the work to which he had dedicated his life.
With the arms of his daughter Catherine around his neck, in a heart-wrenching scene where she cried softly, his daughter whispered to the sick man that she loved him and wouldn’t leave him — even though it meant sacrificing her future — in All College Theater’s production of David Auburn’s “Proof,” directed by alumnus Patrick Albanesius.
The audible gasps of the viewers sitting in the Don Evan’s Black Box Theatre during this flashback were a testament to the superb acting of the cast members — each of whom embraced the volatile and grief-stricken characters with poise well beyond the years of a college student.
It certainly helped that they were able to perform on a beautifully designed and detail-oriented set that even included vines under the porch, a ratty old couch to coincide with the aged house and, of course, the porch steps — home to most of the play’s big action.
While Catherine (played by Morgan Teller) must cope with the recent death of her father Robert (played brilliantly by Jake Burbage), she struggles to prove the authorship of her own proof — resembling only the genius work of her father — while trying to maintain stability in her fear of inheriting her father’s madness.
Burbage’s performance of the professor was undeniably accurate in its portrayal of the mad man. He showcased fast-paced sentences ravaged with stuttered words and shaky hands which guided him through the most emotional of scenes in his terrifyingly violent arguments with Catherine.
Everything from Burbage’s red face, which resulted from him harnessing the anger of Robert, to his gray-dyed hair, depicted Auburn’s character with grace and a true professionalism in the role.
Coinciding with Teller’s outstandingly emotional performance, her costumes of typically sweatpants and baggy sweatshirts provided the audience with a sense of her laziness, stemming from the grief of her hard life looking after her unstable father and not living up to her mathematical potential— or so he thought.
The play introduces Hal, an eager young mathematician and former student of Robert, who looks to makes sense of the hundreds of books Robert wrote during his final years of suffering through insanity. While Catherine’s rough-around-the-edges personality greets Hal with defiance, as she begs him to accept that the notebooks are filled with nonsensical gibberish, a romantic flame is later lit, and she finds herself warming up to him in even the most love-stricken ways.
Hal (played by Garrett Verdone) added a hint of humor alongside the heart-pressing drama. He left the audience in awe at his genuine passion for Catherine when he admits he’s always liked her. Verdone acted out the role, doing justice to Auburn’s writing with his fantastic portrayal of a math nerd with a soft-spot for Catherine.
In the wake of Robert’s death, his estranged daughter, Claire (portayed by Emily Brady) finds her way back to Chicago for the funeral. However, Claire provided a wonderful contrast from her sister, boasting pearls and a diamond ring marking her engagement to her well-off fiancé.
Brady’s performance offered the audience a taste of the life Catherine gave up in order to care for her father. Brady mastered the perspective of a woman hiding her shortcomings as a daughter behind her elegance — a mask that lasted until receiving a massive hangover after drinking with those “fucking physicists.”
In a scene that forced an uproar of laughter from the audience, a disheveled Claire exits the house in a robe with sunglasses, and it was clear that Brady did a wonderful job in her execution of the role.
As Catherine begins to fall for Hal, she provides him with the key to a drawer in her father’s study. It is here that Hal discovers the brilliant work of a proof that even he can’t wrap his head around.
In the final scene of Act I, Hal tries to explain some of the work in the proof with an overwhelming enthusiasm, hoping that Robert’s lucid year would provide him with one last ground-breaking proof in the field. However, Catherine startles the audience with her declaration that she already knows what’s in the notebook — not because she read it, but because she wrote it.
Catherine continues to struggle in proving to Hal and Claire that she produced the proof, as she inherited more than just her father’s rage and possibly his insanity.
But there was no question in proving that the choice in casting was impeccable. The production stayed true to the integrity of Auburn and showcased an incredibly mature performance in the relationship between a mentally-ill father and a fearful daughter, that is sure to make any director proud.
“The most important thing, to me, in the portrayal of Robert was exhibiting his humanity in the midst of his delusion,” Burbage said. “It’s the same goal I try to achieve in all of the characters that I play on stage — making them believable.”