Proving the Links of Math and Art

New play in Loeb Ex examines nature of math and our emotional instability

Sara Joe Wolansky

“Proof,” which runs in the Loeb Ex until tomorrow, deals with the descent towards insanity of Catherine, the daughter of a brilliant mathematician.

For a play primarily about mathematics, “Proof” has a lot to say about the nature of human existence. “It very much looks at the fine line between brilliance and insanity,” says director Kriti Lodha ’12. David Auburn’s Pulitzer-Prize winning drama is being performed at the Loeb Experimental Theater through tomorrow in an effort to bring the play’s relevance to campus. “Being here [at Harvard], I’ve met so many interesting characters,” says Lodha, who is also a Crimson magazine editor, “that it makes me think that this is so appropriate.”

“Proof” centers on Catherine, the brilliant but unbalanced daughter of an even more brilliant and unbalanced mathematician, Robert. Upon Robert’s death, Hal, one of his graduate students, discovers a groundbreaking proof on his desk, which Catherine claims she wrote. The question of the proof’s authorship and Catherine’s burgeoning relationship with Hal dominate the plot of the play, amongst Catherine’s struggles over her father’s recent death and her fears about inheriting his insanity. The title thus takes on additional meaning. “The idea of the proof is her [Catherine] very much trying to prove, to herself more than anyone else, that she is okay and that she’s going to be okay,” Lodha says.

“There are all different levels of people having to prove themselves to each other,” says Caroline R. Giuliani ’11, who plays Catherine. “Some are very literal, but others are about proving that they’re going to be there for you later when you’re crazy, because Catherine is a very emotionally unstable character who tests her relationships with people.”

The play takes the form of a series of vignettes spread through time, and actors and director agree that the plot takes a back seat to the characters and their interactions.

“Each scene has its own story, its own arc. When you throw them all together it creates a story, but each of them has its own individual thing... The show is much more about the relationships that come up in each scene,” says Jesse T. Nee-Vogelman ’13, who plays Hal.

Robert C. Rogers, an HRDC alum who works in the Harvard Math department and has acted off-Broadway in New York, returns to the stage after a multi-year hiatus to play Robert. Rogers and his character have more in common than just an interest in math. “My own father was not exactly like Robert, but he suffered very much from mental illness,” says Rogers. “Some of the stuff Catherine has to do for Robert during the play, I had to do for my father. You always choose roles that help you work through feelings you never quite got through in your real life.”

The personal relevance of some of the play’s themes helps the cast members of “Proof” make the play their own. During its numerous theatrical and cinematic iterations, “Proof” has featured a range of marquee names, including Gwyneth Paltrow as Catherine in the film version and Neil Patrick Harris as Hal on Broadway. To produce a unique version of “Proof,” some of the actors have avoided investigating other versions. “If you go trying to catch up with the big name people you’re always going to fall short,” says Nee-Vogelman. “You have to approach it in a different way.”

Lodha admits the show’s popularity puts some constraints on her ability to experiment, but these haven’t bothered her. “Anything that’s consistent between the shows, I realized I didn’t want to change it,” she says. To avoid creating a carbon copy of previous productions, Lodha is utilizing some unusual staging as well as playing up the introspective aspects of Auburn’s original vision, which she feels sometimes get submerged in other productions.

The fact that the show’s run has already sold out is an indication of its fame and also of its thematic appropriateness to this academic setting. “We really wanted to reach out and branch out beyond the typical theatergoers,” Lodha said. “There is something interesting in the convergence of mathematics and theater. What’s very interesting about this show is taking something that seems like two polar opposites and showing that there isn’t that much of a difference after all.”