NORTHBRIDGE — David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” has a lot less to do with math than it does with the theme of trust and fear of madness, both of which were addressed with riveting intensity in 4th Wall Stage Company’s exhilarating production Saturday evening.
It’s been said that genius and madness share two sides of the same coin, and it’s a blessing-curse conundrum that inhabits Robert (Fred D’Angelo), a world-class mathematician who went, as he calls it, “bughouse.” His daughter, Catherine (Briana Gardell), has given up her own ambitions in the field to care for her father, fearful that she has inherited his?mental instability.
Set entirely on the back porch of the family home in Chicago, the play’s opening scene does not make it immediately apparent that it is a fantasized conversation between Catherine and her just-deceased father. He’s trying to rally her out of her unmotivated stupor, on the eve of her 25th birthday, exhorting her to get out of bed before noon and do something with her life. After all, she’s somewhat of a math whiz herself.
She frets about knowing whether she’s crazy or not, and Robert comforts her with the notion that crazy people don’t ask themselves if they’re crazy. Catherine’s older sister, Claire (Aimee Kewley), is flying in from New York for Robert’s funeral, also concerned that Catherine is cursed with mad genius disorder and wants her to come back to New York with her for therapy.
Hal (Sean Gardell), one of Robert’s former students, comes snooping around the house looking through Robert’s pile of notebooks for potentially significant breakthroughs Robert may have discovered during a nine-month remission of lucidity. When Hal finds a ground-breaking proof about prime numbers poking through the mountain of gibberish scribbled in Robert’s notebooks, the proof’s authenticity and authorship trigger a dynamic interplay that is emotionally and intellectually enervating.
One can abhor math and still admire what director Robbin Joyce and her excellent cast bring to the bracing mix of feelings and ideas that pervade “Proof.” Briana Gardell is superlative as Catherine, calling up manifold emotions at will. One moment she can appear on the brink of a nervous breakdown, but too listless to follow through on it, a pale, fatigued portrait of self-immolating resignation. Then she’ll flash an incandescent smile that lights up the theater, when Hal rouses her out of her dormant malaise with attention beyond the academic.
When their relationship is put to the test in the play’s trust-issue moments, one might well surmise that the Gardells draw on their real-life partnership to bring such passionate, biting realism to the scene.
Sean Gardell, wearing a variety of colorful T-shirts throughout, is an endearing, scruffy geek as Hal, employing all sorts of lovable, awkward, nervous tics and gestures in his performance. He makes Hal an intellectually curious, appealing puppy dog.
Kewley is splendid as well-meaning, stridently pragmatic Claire. She thinks she knows what’s best for her sister, but Catherine will have none of it. Their final encounter is a furiously acted clash of wills, Claire insisting that New York will make Catherine feel alive again, Catherine mocking her with visions of attending Broadway musicals and afternoons at Lincoln Center.
D’Angelo is quite affecting in the role of Robert, imbuing him with a fragile, sad, quirky quality that seems just right for a man with a brilliant mind gone awry. In flashback, it’s heartbreaking when he exclaims with joy to Catherine that he’s back in genius mode, ready to reach new glorious heights of productivity. He eagerly gives Catherine his notebook, to show her what he’s written down, but the stricken look on her face tells us otherwise. It’s also wrenching to watch Robert break down in tears when he realizes he’s forgotten Catherine’s 21st birthday. Joyce directs with a steady hand, giving her actors room to breathe without letting our attention divert for a second. If you want proof that first-rate community theater is rampant in Central Massachusetts, look no further.