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Small, magnetic cast powers 'Proof'

(10/09/03 4:00am)

The crazy man doesn't know he's crazy. In the fight against lunacy, the little currency he has is the faith of others in his sanity in the award-winning play "Proof." For the past few years, 25-year-old Catherine (Keira Naughton) has cared for her unstable father Robert (Michael Rudko), a brilliant former mathematics professor at the University of Chicago. Catherine shares her father's mathematical ability, but she also tends toward his instability: sleeping for days, not eating and going through bouts of depression. She knows this and fears the madness. We meet Catherine on her birthday, which is also her father's burial day. Her father's funeral reception, planned by Catherine's New York-savvy sister Claire (Susan Lynskey), morphs into a bacchanale with a rock band of mathematicians wailing inharmoniously. As Claire tries to hold her liquor against theoretical physicists, Hal (Barnaby Carpenter), one of Robert's former students, uses a moment of drunken opportunity to kiss Catherine. Catherine, a bit of a recluse, returns his affection. Given a key to a drawer in Robert's office by Catherine, Hal shatters the morning's post-coital bliss with the discovery of an extraordinary prime number proof in one of Robert's 103 marble notebooks. Ecstatic, he rushes to the porch asking Catherine if she had known about it. Claire, emerging from her stupor, wants to know what the proof means. Neither believes Catherine, who says she is the author. They recoil and both deny Catherine as unable to live up to her father's genius. With requisite math jokes and clarity, "Proof" probes one woman's ability to reason through life's tests. Catherine faces the double specter of her sister's belief in her instability and the effects of her father's insanity on her. In scenes that float between dream, present time and flashback, all on the family porch, the play reveals Robert's charming but heartbreaking insanity. Catherine's recompense is that she remained to care for her father and managed to pull him from madness to lucidity for seven months before he returned again. But her faith in her decision comes into question. At the peak of his lucidity, Catherine finds her father on the porch in a T-shirt on a Chicago December day working feverishly, complaining of the stifling hotness of the radiator and his inability to work inside. She asks to see his new work. He is elated and hands her the work. Catherine's face turns to terrible despair. In a raw, visceral moment Robert shrilly yells, "Read the goddamn lines." She reads the bitterly beautiful poem. The proof fades into the background but serves a function, too. The real proof, of course, is Catherine proving she is her father's best parts, not worst. But Hal's persistence in sticking with the mathematical proof and his affection for Catherine help her begin to gain control. The small cast of four sucks viewers in. Catherine's sarcasm, Claire's 30-something valley girl characteristics, and Hal's nerdy eccentricities give extra punch to the witty dialogue. The actors, particularly Rudko, shine when the witty turns to gritty. "Proof" attempts to prove we can overcome life's instabilities. Catherine describes her own proofs as roughshod and her father's as elegant. This "Proof" certainly follows Robert's method.