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“Proof” Proves a Success

Leah Nano and Kenan Ozer in the middle of an intense scene.

By Sarah Waters, Staff Writer

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On Thursday, Friday & Saturday, Niles West Theatre presented “Proof,” a play which sheds a much-needed light upon relationships, awareness of mental illness, and family ties.

The play is set in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. In the opening scene, we find out a University of Chicago math professor, Robert, who spent his later years battling severe, regressive mental illness has passed away of heart failure, and his daughter, Catherine, is left to begin her new life without him. Catherine is concerned about exhibiting signs of mental illness as well, and in the opening scene, she hallucinates that her father is there talking to her, even though he has died a day earlier.

Throughout the play, Hal, Robert’s former student and later Catherine’s romantic interest, is obsessed with reading through Robert’s old notebooks — where he obsessively wrote during his decline — to find novel mathematical concepts or proofs Robert may have discovered. Hal never finds any relevant writing from Robert, but Catherine entrusts Hal later in the play to be the first to see a proof she has completed. The content of the proof is never revealed, but Hal reacts with delight and amazement. He insists that this proof is something mathematicians have been looking for decades and is astonished Catherine could write such a proof.

He is so astounded that he doubts Catherine was the one to write it, believing it was authored by her father. He and Claire, Catherine’s sister who flies in from New York to be present for Robert’s funeral, assume Catherine’s claim is evidence of her mental decline and presumes the proof to be the work of Robert. Hal brings the proof to a group of fellow mathematicians to verify it, and they find no recognizable issues in its execution. He returns the proof to Catherine with an apology for his doubting of her, to which she is not receptive.

Throughout the play, Claire coaxes Catherine to move to New York to live near her and her fiance. She’s concerned about Catherine’s mental state, believing she inherited their father’s illness and wants to give her the opportunity for a fresh start in New York. After their father’s death, Catherine lacks direction, and is visibly conflicted about the decision between her old life — to stay in Chicago — and new — to move with her sister. Catherine and Claire argue incessantly about the move throughout the play. The conflict comes to a head in the final scene, where, after Catherine’s constant passive-aggression about the move, Claire storms out and threatens to leave for New York without her. Hal then comes to Catherine’s aid, and she decides to forgive his previous assumptions and explain the proof to him. The play ends on that note.

I thought the play was a great choice for the theatre department to perform. I was especially impressed with the set — the backyard setting had a distinctly Chicago aura, complete with a porch, patio table and chairs, a grill, and even a screen door that opened to the back. There were plenty of gardening tools and outdoor equipment left awry — just as it is in plenty of our own backyards. It was authentic, while still looking professional and polished.

In terms of the content of the play, I respected its candid discussion of mental illness and the effects it has on relationships. In the play, Catherine struggles with recovering her former life after the death of her father, who struggled with graphomania (an obsessive compulsion to write, often incoherent and confused statements). She is concerned, as aforementioned, with inheriting her father’s illness. The play grapples with this issue’s effect on Catherine, straining her relationships with both Claire and Hal.

It’s an understatement to say that conversations about mental illness aren’t had nearly enough in our society, and the fact the Theatre department chose to shed light on it through their production is important not just within our school, but also in how we interact with the world.

This aspect of the play also places an important focus on sibling relationships as well. Claire is conflicted about whether or not to take Catherine with her to New York to see a doctor and live nearby. Catherine reacts hostilely and is apprehensive to leave Chicago, where she’s lived her entire life. This conflict shows that although siblings may disagree, they often have the best intentions.

Overall, the play’s themes are timely and thought-provoking, especially within a high school context. It’s important for students to have exposure to difficult topics in order to be more understanding and accepting of people who may differ in their experiences. Proof is a perfect example of a well-organized and thoughtful approach to these issues.

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