Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through April 14
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Court Theatre’s artistic director Charles Newell loves pushing the envelope. There’s no better proof than his production of “Proof,” David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play about a 25 year old grieving for the death of her University of Chicago math-genius father and suffering from fears she has the mental illness that overcame him.
If you saw the touring Broadway show more than a decade ago and/or Goodman Theatre’s 2004 version with an African American cast, you probably expect “Proof” to be a naturalistic portrait of academic life in Hyde Park complete with a meticulously detailed set of the back porch on which the action takes place.
Well, think again.
Newell completely explodes any such preconceptions and instead creates a kind of hyper-real, even surreal, experience, almost as if we’re inside Catherine’s head as she grapples with her loss, tries to define her own identity, confronts the agenda of her well-meaning but insensitive sister, and deals with the former student of her father she suspects of using her to further his own career.
Martin Andrew’s iconoclastic scenic design sets the tone. Instead of a porch, it consists of a platform and a backdrop of glossy-black squares that conjure up a geometry problem. On one side, a shower-like rainfall occasionally engulfs the troubled Catherine. On the other are a few steps to which she frequently retreats. When depression causes her to sleep for days, she — and we — watch her silhouetted sister Claire and student Hal conspiratorially discussing her condition like it’s her fevered dream. The two eerily realistic props are a white chair and a weathered white porch swing.
The swing, especially, gets a workout during Chaon Cross’s incredibly physical performance as Catherine. She does everything from standing on it as if on a trapeze to curling up under it in the fetal position. Cross is much more on the edge than any Catherine I’ve seen, making it easier to believe that grief could be driving her crazy. She’s also compellingly complicated, sharply sarcastic, frequently funny and riveting to watch, whether she’s using her shapeless oversize sweater (costumes by Rachel Laritz) as a security blanket or coming out of her shell to Hal in her little black dress for the funeral. The inner strength he sees in her emerges — but only haltingly and intermittently.
Because she is so fragile, this Catherine shapes how we perceive those around her, particularly her sister. Claire can come across as a meddling monster callously intent on selling the Hyde Park house she paid for and compelling Catherine to return to New York with her, but Megan Kohl makes this matter-of-fact businesswoman’s concerns about her sibling’s mental state seem genuine and somewhat justified, even if the two are from very different planets.
Catherine’s planet is the one that was inhabited by Robert, the father whose mathematical genius she inherited and who dropped out of school — the jokes about Northwestern University and Evanston play particularly well to a Hyde Park audience — to care for. Kevin Gudahl, who has an amazing ability to disappear into his roles, is perfect as this man who was loved by his daughter and revered by his students, whether he’s a figment of her imagination in the opening or enjoying a 9-month period of lucidity in a flashback later on.
For me, though, the most interesting relationship in this production is the give-and-take love-hate between Catherine and Erik Hellman’s Hal, who is geeky yet appealing in a totally University of Chicago way. A self-doubting student turned professor who knows his own limitations (including the fact that the band he plays in is bad), he initially comes to the house asking to go through the late Robert’s 100-or-so notebooks to see if there are any revelations amid the gibberish. Suspicious, Catherine accuses him of stealing but slowly enough trust builds between them that she reveals the mathematical “proof” she’s worked out, only to have him betray her by doubting it’s really hers, as does Claire. The possibility of rapprochement and romance bring the evening to a hopeful, if slightly pat, conclusion made plausible by the chemistry between Cross and Hellman.
While I admit I at first had some problems with Newell’s radical rethinking of “Proof,” ultimately it worked for me. The interpretation is illuminating, and the acting is terrific. What more could anyone ask?