What does a Pulitzer Prize play look like? That’s a good question, and there’s a great answer that’s playing now through April 13 in Armonk’s Whippoorwill Theater. It’s called Proof, by David Auburn, and it’s what the winner of a Pulitzer (as well as several Tony Awards and other top honors) also feels like and sounds like: In a word, exquisite. And in another word: enthralling. (For ticket information: HudsonStage.com.)
Proof proves that a Pulitzer play is many things all at once: Comic and tragic; suspenseful and revealing; universal in theme, yet uniquely specific in plot; relatable in its depiction of human relations, yet extraordinary in its lyrical expression of the human condition.
Mr. Auburn’s script is wily and witty, with nary a wasted word or a dull moment. The often-droll dialogue—generating a generous frequency of laughs—flows as easily and crisply as a freshwater stream, with an undercurrent of dramatic momentum that never lets up.
Catherine (Jenna Krasowski) is the 25-year-old daughter of a world-renowned professor of mathematics, Robert (John Wodja), who, as one character says, “revolutionized the field of mathematics twice before he was 25.” That was decades ago.
Robert has been dead a week as the play, set in Chicago, begins. He had been working for years on what would be an historic theorem about prime numbers that nobody had been able to figure out.
In flashbacks, and in Catherine’s mind, they discuss his work and her own, presumably inherited, brilliance as a mathematician. However, Catherine fears she may have inherited something else from Robert: clinical depression and dementia.
When her sister Claire (Cadden Jones) shows up for the funeral, it becomes clear these siblings may as well be named Yin and Yang for their polarized dispositions. Claire, a saccharine and sunshiny career woman, wants dry and downcast “Kate” to relocate to New York, where Claire is about to be married. Catherine, wary of her sister’s motives, suspects Claire wants to have her institutionalized.
In Catherine’s fraught connections to both her father and to her sister, we’re reminded that if blood indeed is thicker than water, it’s also more toxic.
When Kate hooks up romantically with a high-spirited former student of the professor, Hal (Jayson Speters), who now is a teacher himself, it elevates her self-esteem. Suddenly energized by a love interest, she points Hal toward a notebook she locked away, in which resides the completed theorem her father had been working on. But if he didn’t finish the proof, who did, and can they prove it as their own?
One of Mr. Auburn’s remarkable achievements in Proof is using a plot device as cold and cryptic as math to draw us in to the fascinating questions he poses – notably what, if anything, separates madness from genius. Are they, in fact, one and the same? Is genius even worth it if its intensity can drive you mad? And, in human relations, is objective scientific proof more valuable or more important than subjective trust of a loved one?
It’s not as if we walk out of the theater more emotionally invested in numbers, but neither are we numbed by them. This deft dramatist makes us care about his intellectually gifted and emotionally distressed human ciphers, who celebrate epiphanies unearthed in the mysteries of prime integers.
In addition to the elegant and roomy, yet intimate, Whippoorwill Theater—which is a structural wing of North Castle Library—another constant comfort that characterizes a Hudson Stage production is the canny casting that almost always is spot on.
The quartet of actors here is terrific both individually and as a well-tuned, harmonious unit, a testament to the directorial mastery of Dan Foster.
As Catherine, the play’s center of gravity (in more ways than one), Jenna Krasowski gives a beautifully-modulated, achingly authentic performance. We cannot help but empathize with the tart-tongued but vulnerable young woman who’s sure of her talent, less sure of her equilibrium, and flat-out unsure of her future.
As her doppelganger father, a purebred creature of academe, John Wojda is an affecting amalgam of irascible, eccentric, and charming. He’s the absent-minded professor so wrapped up in his scholarship that it would be rude to look askance at his social awkwardness—not to mention the fact that he abhors pasta.
Also superb are Jayson Speters as Hal and Cadden Jones as Claire. Ms. Jones makes a stylish, sharply-defined foil for the tomboyish younger sister she cares about, but whom she also envies and resents for Catherine’s God-given, and Dad-given, intellect, and for Catherine’s closeness to their father.
Mr. Speters seemingly springs onto stage with each entrance, engagingly breathless in his eagerness to absorb as much as he can from his late mentor’s attic-full of voluminous notebooks.
Hudson Stage Company, the producer of this show, already is a gold standard in this region for theater that aspires to Broadway quality. Working with material that boasts a Pulitzer pedigree, Hudson Stage executive producers Denise Bessette and Olivia Sklar, in league with their partner Mr. Foster, have delivered as satisfying and compelling a theater experience as any you’ll find north of Manhattan. But don’t take my word for it. The proof is there for anyone to see for themselves. If you’re a theater lover, prove it by seeing Proof.