David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play "Proof" premiered in Los Angeles for a limited engagement at the Hayworth Theatre with a haunting and spare production. Directed by Aliah Whitmore and sensitively acted by Daniela Ruah in the central role, the four-character story is a complex meditation on the fine line between genius and madness.
Ruah plays Catherine, a 20-something left adrift after the death of her gifted mathematician father, Robert (James Whitmore, Jr.), for whom she cared through the mental illness that defined the end of his life. Catherine, a math whiz herself, struggles with living in her father’s shadow as well as the fear that she may have inherited her father’s psychosis. Her life is upended when she meets Hal (Dustin Seavey), an ex-graduate student of Robert’s, who finds a brilliant-if-it-can-be-quantified proof, and when her sister Claire (director Whitmore) decides to sell the childhood home Catherine still lives in.
A major player on the hit television series "NCIS: Los Angeles," Ruah gives a nuanced performance navigating romantic feelings for Hal, thoughts of her own failure (her father was already successful by the age she is now), frustration at the sexism in the world of mathematics, and terror at being uprooted from the only home she’s known. She’s both introverted and outspokenly straightforward, the two of which are each masking her pain.
Aliah Whitmore brings a gravitas to older sister Claire, who left home and entered the working world in order to pay bills while Catherine stayed home with their father. Being the breadwinner doesn’t mean she isn’t as nurturing as Catherine -- she’s just no-nonsense about it.
Whitmore’s performance keeps her from being a shrill harpy, imbuing her with a sensitivity and concern behind her forthrightness. Whitmore, Jr. has to juggle two aspects of his character himself, hiding his fear of his illness behind crotchety crustiness while clinging to Catherine as his rock.
The script is both smart and accessible, giving arch, insightful, and devastating dialogue to each of the characters. Director Aliah makes good use of the one set -- Robert and Catherine’s rundown house -- especially with the use of a window through which we see people in masks intermittently peering through. Presumably they represent both the fractured psyche Catherine fears she may have as well as the different sides each of us as human beings have. It’s a haunting image reminding us of the specters both within and without.
The only odd choice is tweaking the end of the story, dropping down on one side of the fence regarding Catherine’s possible mental issues as opposed to leaving it open-ended. It’s not that it can’t ring true; it’s just a peculiar choice for a play that performs a balancing act between insanity and brilliance.