“She’s not my friend. She’s my sister.”
There are lots of good lines in David Auburn’s play Proof, currently playing at the Walterdale Theatre and directed by Kristen Finlay, but that was one of my favourites. Two of the characters in the story are sisters, Catherine (Gabby Bernard) and Claire (Jessica Watson). Catherine, the younger, had been living at home and taking care of her mentally ill father Robert until his death just before the play starts, and Claire is the successful stylish older sister who breezes in from New York City to manage things. The tensions between them are understandable but not clichéd.
Robert (dale Wilson), seen in some flashback scenes and other devices, was a likeable character who reminded me of my own father. He had been a mathematician and math professor. The fourth character in the play is his protégé Hal (Jordan Ward, previously seen in The Full Monty and the Fringe show God on God). Hal has been reading through the notebooks in Robert’s study looking for anything important or publishable that might have appeared among Robert’s graphomaniac gibberish.
All four actors portray their characters as interesting and complex. One might assume that Claire, the conventional non-mathematician in the group, is going to be socially competent where the rest are awkward, but in the company of her sister and Hal she turns out to have her own brand of awkwardness and insensitivity, and Jessica Watson occasionally shows her as being wistful about being excluded. Claire and her father, and then Claire and Hal, all share a kind of delight in literal thinking and wordplay-argument that is very familiar to me. In a flashback scene, a younger Catherine tells Robert that she’s been accepted to Northwestern University and will be moving out soon to resume her studies. He is resistant, flailing to make up various objections, but when his graduate student Hal shows up to drop off a thesis draft, Robert immediately begins bragging to Hal about Catherine’s good news and bright future, making sure that she overhears. Another thing that impressed me about this scene was Jordan Ward’s different body language and voice as a 24-year-old student at his advisor’s home, compared to how we’d seen him in the previous scene, aged 28, talking to Catherine who is younger and without academic credentials. As the student, he’s hunched over, hesitant, out of place, over-eager to agree with his advisor, but as the young instructor he’s got a veneer of superficial confidence and condescension.
Hal’s interactions with Catherine were fascinating and infuriating to watch throughout the play, because although they have shared interests and are attracted to each other, he reveals over and over the kinds of casually-sexist and educationally-elitist assumptions that are unfortunately not uncommon in young male academics. For example, he asks her how old she is but responds indignantly when she asks him the same question. He obviously thinks that her age is relevant and his isn’t, and that he is entitled to assess her credibility as a scholar.
I thought Gabby Bernard was very strong in her portrayal of the main character Catherine. The character’s unguarded facial expressions were perfect, especially in the scene where she thinks she’s caught Hal stealing something but his backpack turns out to be empty, and in the scene where Hal tells Claire about finding some unpublished work in the study. That scene, ending the first act, is the critical point of the play. Catherine is standing outside of Hal’s field of view, and it’s clear that the other two characters are completely unaware of her, but the lighting designer’s choices and the actor’s stance and facial expressions of growing disbelief led me to focus on her.
As Robert, dale Wilson appears in only a few scenes. But the scene in which he is convinced that he’s ready to resume productive mathematics after his previous bout of mental illness is heartbreaking. He encourages Catherine to read out his draft notes and he nods with self-congratulation as she reads gently “The future of cold is infinite. The future of heat is the future of cold. The bookstores are infinite and so are never full except in September…”
The story of this play gave me lots to think about, not just about family relationships and about attitudes of men and women, but also about fields of discovery, about the fear of being too old to do good work, and about watching oneself for signs of instability.
There are three more performances, tonight through Saturday night at the Walterdale Theatre. Tickets are available at Tix on the Square and at the door.