Maybe they should install a mental health clinic next to the Playhouse Downtown.
The theme of the season, on the Main Street stage and beyond, seems to be people going crazy. Some say the theatrics next door at the Historic Courthouse are as entertaining as anything at 125 South Main. But I digress.
We are here to visit the insanity of the week, fictional version, now on stage at the downtown theater.
As in "Red," a brilliant but difficult man is at the center of "Proof," roiling the lives around him and generally causing distress.
Robert, played by Playhouse veteran Ralph Redpath, is a brilliant mathematician whose analytical powers have long left him; he did his best work in his 20s, five decades past. His caregiver is his 24-year-old daughter, the beautiful but volatile Catherine, clinically depressed and at times profane. ("Proof" shatters the Flat Rock Playhouse record for use of the f-word.) Sometimes Catherine stays in bed all day.
"Proof" is a Pulitzer Prize winning drama, well-written and tightly woven. It's "A Beautiful Mind" marries "On Golden Pond," complete with a startling revelation about the mathematician's "solution" for an obscure theorem and a rustic back porch in a leafy part of the University of Chicago campus. The only thing missing is a shack papered with news clippings and the soundtrack of the loons.
The play is appealing not least because of the riveting performance of Vivian Smith as Catherine. Fragile, histrionic and occasionally loving, Catherine has set aside her own dreams to care for her father, who thinks he can still find the solution to a theorem that has long stumped the math world.
A doctoral student studying Robert's voluminous notebooks provides a subplot of romance. The relationship of Catherine and the young man, Harold, played by Andrew Hampton Livingston, is uneasy. She is suspicious of his motives, and besides that thinks her father's dusty old math notes are worthless. She falsely accuses Hal of trying to steal one of the notebooks. In fact, he was smuggling one out, but because it contained a diary entry from her father in praise of Catherine and her devotion to him.
The first third of the play is flashback. The father has died, and the sister arrives from her organized and highly regimented life in Manhattan to find the house a mess and her sister, she suspects, suffering from the passed-down mental instability of their father.
The post-funeral gathering at the family home becomes a full-out party with lots of drinking, and Catherine and Hal get together that night. The next day, we find Catherine peppy and bright, as if a night of sex and booze had cured whatever ailed her mental state. If so, it didn't take.
As Act I ends, we are hit with a revelation that will drive the rest of the story.
Livingston, as Hal, has for the second play in a row been cast as a voice of sanity amid less stable minds around him. In "Red," he was the assistant to Mark Rothko, the painter who was constantly battling the world. In "Proof," we keep hoping that Hal can find the truth and maybe love in the bargain.
Redpath does a fine job capturing the mental descent and emotions of dementia, and Rebecca Morris is convincing as the overbearing sister trying to trundle poor Catherine off to a mental ward.
Hal does come through in the end, and "Proof" ends with hope if not outright redemption.
Along the way, as an 18-year-old of our acquaintance observed, "There's a lot of arguing."
If "Proof" is not the merriest two hours one can spend, it's more pleasant than the sideshow of unhinged claptrap a half block up the street.
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