Proof at the Central Square Theatre Brings Tears, Laughter, Inspiration (5 stars)

The Nora Theatre Company, with Lee Mikeska Gardner, Artistic Director, presents Proof, by David Auburn, directed by Michelle M. Aguillon, with Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, Costume Design by Leslie Held, Lighting Design by Allison Schneider, Sound Design by Grant Furgiuele, Properties Coordination by Lisa Charlotte Berg & Annabeth Kelly, with Production Stage Manager Sam Layco and Assistant Stage Manager Michaila Cowie, running January 18 to February 18, 2018 at the Central Square Theatre.

In Proof, two daughters with different career paths come into conflict over their father, first a maths genius who went insane. Now Catherine (Lisa Nguyen), whose life is unraveling, wants desperately to know, did she inherit the insanity? Did she inherit the genius? The only choice for her, and those around her, is faith. There is no proof.

Proof, the play, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for best new play. Then it was adapted for a 2005 film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Massachusetts native Gwyneth Paltrow, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for it. (Oddly, another Boston-area play currently running, Shakespeare in Love, also has a movie adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow.)

Now it’s brought to the Central Square Theatre. The venue seats about 200 and they sell a wide variety of cold drinks, hot drnks, wine, beer, hot chocolate, lemonade, and candy bar snacks.

The staging, by Janie E. Howland, is remarkably natural-seeming, the porch and back yard of a creaky family house in Chicago, including a “lawn” of wood chips. The walls of the house are chalkboard-like, covered with mathematical equations, symbolizing not just the house that Cathy wants to escape, but also the mathematical accomplishments of her father. The actors form an Asian family, but the production doesn’t modify the script to comment on that, instead speaking to the strains that any overachieving family, from any heritage, can relate to.

The script is perfect. It’s wonderfully compact, with never a moment wasted, and there is a never a need for a scene change, as all action happens naturally on the porch. The dialogue is outstanding, intense, and deep. The play, don’t worry, is not really about mathematics, although it contains some math puns. The play is about intense, passion characters with a yearning for change. You immediately get caught up in the pathos and possibility, and the play is comic as well, with some laugh out loud moments.

Lisa Nguyen steals the show as Catherine, whose outbursts and mood swings compellingly convey the possibility of mental instability — and the possibility of genius. She lurches from combatting her sister Claire and new friend Hal, to embracing them, convincingly, making her character stressed out enough for empathy, but not so hostile that you come to hate her. Kudos to Avery Bargar (Hal) and Cheryl Daro (Claire) for great chemistry with her. Their reactions support the change in character and their faith in Cathy undermines or supports her own faith in herself.

The play is not without a few bumps. Better use could be made of lighting, for example, in a scene that is meant to be set on a cold winter night. It’s hard to convey an intimate moment in a theatre that chooses to work without microphones — it’s a conflict between hushed, confidential tone of voice but also a raised voice to project to the audience. The cast managed this admirably except in some scenes with Robert (Michael Tow).

Without spoiling the plot, I can say that the play is missing a scene from the movie where Cathy hides the notebook… something I felt heightened the issue of her faith in herself. But no matter, Proof is heartbreaking, mesmerizing, and beautiful on two levels — as a production and as a lesson in scriptwriting.

I often tell people that Cambridge is a magical place. Everyone there seems to want to take on the world, and they have the skills to do it. That’s a stressful way to live, and you must see this play if you’d like some inspiration. I am glad to give Proof a full 5 stars.