Arts theater review

‘Let X equal the cold’

Play ruminates on the nature of genius and the nurture of family

Central Square Theatre
Directed by Michelle Aguillon
Showing until Feb. 18, 2018

With a previous run on Broadway, a Best Play Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a movie adaptation, this run of Proof has some very strong antecedents to live up to. Lisa Nguyen plays Catherine, an aspiring mathematician who put her studies on hold to care for her ailing father, Robert (Michael Tow), a former mathematics professor who revolutionized several fields. The action takes place over three days and consists of revealing conversations Catherine has with her father, her sister Claire (Cheryl Daro), and Hal, a former student of her father’s (Avery Bargar).

David Auburn’s script is laden with complex themes: parent-child relationships, sacrificing one’s career to care for a loved one, coping with mental illness, the fear of turning into one’s parents, and, of course, vacillations in romantic relationships. Some themes are less common and of greater interest here in Cambridge: the perception that scientists (mathematicians, especially) become less productive with age, competition for top scientific achievement, the nature of genius, and the complex allocation of credit for a discovery. Something will resonate; you’ll be hooked by at least one motif. But plays are short — exposition time is limited. As a result, I do wish that the questions raised in Proof were addressed in more depth.

With two multifunctional theaters, the Central Square Theater sets up its stages in any way it want. Whereas A Christmas Carol was arranged in a round, the stage for Proof — the front face of a small house, a porch, and the yard surrounding it — all occupies a corner of the space. This configuration gives spectators a chance to view each scene from different angles. The actors handled this perfectly; entrances, action, and dialogue originated from every direction, but they never looked contrived. With many forms of tension between the characters, the understated stage design (plain hues and a simple layout) meshed well with the play and direction. Hidden here and there in the set were allusions to the events taking place: Germain primes scrawled on the roof shingles, Legendre’s logarithmic integral formula on the porch, the wall of the house evoking a blackboard.

The whole world’s a stage, but plays about scientists, with a focus on their professional lives, are rare. It’s refreshing to experience one again and to observe so many secret sources of anguish you’ve likely experienced yourself be played out in the open.