Erica Towe and Chris Gillooly-Kress in VLT’s Proof

Math Problems

Life is more than a theory in VLT’s production of the Pulitzer-winning drama Proof

Genius is to insanity as freedom is to bondage as family is to isolation as heaven is to hell: These dichotomies fall apart in our lived experience, and we come to understand how opposites entangle — not one defining the other but everything all of a piece, each breeding each, until self-determination itself becomes the cage. We are entrapped by the antagonisms that drive us. The real work is the extraction.

In David Auburn’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning Proof, the brilliant and unstable daughter of a brilliant, insane mathematician is all but swallowed by her father’s awesome shadow, which threatens to absorb her identity in the very act of obscuring it. The play is an intimate, sometimes claustrophobic domestic drama that, in its tender handling of terrifying human depths, works to transcend the boundaries of its hedged formulas, becoming a thrilling and expansive meditation on the nature of being and becoming.

It’s hard to imagine Very Little Theatre mounting a better version of Proof than the one now running. Under the precise and thoughtful direction of Larry K. Fried, and executed by a crackerjack cast of four actors — each of whom shines, and all of whom interact almost flawlessly — this production captures, in subtlest tones, the full force of Auburn’s writing, which is equal parts heady and heartfelt, vulnerable and hard-edged.

Erica Towe plays Catherine, an unrecognized math prodigy whose ambition — nay, whose life itself — has been smothered as she’s cared singlehandedly for her addled father, Robert (William Campbell), whose groundbreaking mathematical proofs early in his career were followed by years of mental collapse and, eventually, death. Haunted by his legacy, traumatized by his illness and mired in grief, Catherine is caught in existential limbo. Towe embodies the role with captivating finesse; her Catherine is by turns petulant and fragile, receding and fierce, and completely heartbreaking. It’s a great performance.

Campbell is wonderful as the professor, a shuffling, shambolic figure who bears his former greatness and current insanity with the stubborn pride and burgeoning fear of the vanquished. Very few actors capture the full dimension of academic despair — Richard Burton comes to mind — but Campbell inhabits Robert’s fallen grace with lovely restraint, bringing the character’s embattled humanity to the fore.

Janna Slack is equally good as Claire, Catherine’s sister, who swoops in to Chicago after her father’s death, hoping to sell the house and drag her sibling back to New York to start anew. Slack is good in a role that, in lesser hands, could devolve to the merely meddlesome, and she brings an inner light to the familiar stereotype of the fix-it role of a so-called dysfunctional family.

Completing this chamber ensemble is Chris Gillooly-Kress as Hal, the fawning and well-meaning former student of Robert’s who is searching his mentor’s papers for one more world-changing proof, while also romantically pursuing Catherine, albeit rather clumsily. When Hal discovers that proof (literally, if not figuratively) — a theoretical proof which might, in fact, be Catherine’s — complications of intent ensue, and Gillooly-Kress is adept at traipsing the thin line between ulterior and exterior motives regarding his romancing of Catherine and his desire for fame and recognition.

Proof is a product of VLT’s Stage Left, an off-the-main-stage wing whose productions are offered as filler between the theater’s main seasonal shows. They tend to be quicker productions, less elaborate in casting and design, more experimental, and pared down to the bare necessities. Such limitations, in this case, become nothing but benefits — benefits which, it can be said, might have something to say to grander, more expensive shows that sometimes get bloated by over-generous casting and a lack of focus. Less, unless you’re Busby Berkeley, is almost always more.

In other words, this production of Proof is marvelously streamlined and oh-so-artfully put together, and all the more powerful for it — it cuts to the bone, and the catharsis it provides is real and believable. The show proves itself in every meaning of the word. Unfortunately, Stage Left productions are also economical in their runs, so if you don’t catch it this weekend, you’ll miss it altogether. 

Proof plays through May 5 at Very Little Theatre; tickets and info at or 541-344-7751.