By Mara Capati
Rachel Pazos(Claire) and Gia Ndoye (Catherine) photo credit unknown.
“Director Gianbari Debora Deebom impresses with a strong directorial debut. She provides the audience with an intimate look into the lives and intricacies of bold characters whose interests and perspectives clash in a perfectly dissonant harmony, all throughout the production.”
Proof is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning American play written by David Auburn that premiered in the early 2000s. The play takes place during the same period of its original premiere in Chicago, Illinois and sets its focus on Catherine, the daughter and caretaker of Robert, a mathematical genius and former professor at the University of Chicago in his fifties. Robert passes after some time battling with mental illness and Catherine is faced not only with the death of her father, but the concerns and pressures from her sister, Claire, who has other ideas – incongruent to Catherine’s perspective – on what Catherine should or shouldn’t be doing to heal and find fulfillment in life. Hal, a former doctoral student of the late professor, also plays an integral role in the aftermath of Robert’s death, through forms of mathematical discourse and romance. Throughout Catherine’s grieving process, she faces scrutiny of her own genius and mental state, and is confronted with the complex problem of proving her capabilities, mentally and mathematically. This thought-provoking play explores themes of genius and mental instability, family and legacy, genetics, sexism, and credibility.
Director Gianbari Debora Deebom impresses with a strong directorial debut. She provides the audience with an intimate look into the lives and intricacies of bold characters whose interests and perspectives clash in a perfectly dissonant harmony, all throughout the production. There are no frills or distractions here, as Deebom’s approach is direct and to the point. The audience is moved through every stage, after the fallout of Robert’s death, from the grieving process to the settling and resolution. Deebom’s interpretation of the heart and struggles of the twenty-something young adult and the aging father figure create a relatable space for adult children and their parents to reminisce and explore the challenges of young adulthood, aging, and how family dynamics evolve over time.
On the technical end, Pima’s Black Box Theatre was the perfect space for this play to really shine. The actors could be clearly heard and felt in this setting. The audience is transitioned scene after scene through every season with the help of atmospheric music and simple but clever projections, all within the up close and personal staging of a porch and a single family brick home. The technical design for this production is a great testament to the “less is more” approach.
The production is double casted, presumably due in part to the small cast size the production calls for. I applaud this approach from the educational perspective as it provides more opportunities for student actors to shine and delve into both lead and supporting roles. The cast performing at the showing I attended were Gia Ndoye, Preston Campbell-Cueva, Mike Sultzbach, and Rachel Pazos. All of the actors did a phenomenal job on their delivery overall. Sultzbach’s interpretation of Robert embodied all the makings of a mathematical genius and a loving father. The range and development of this character in and out of the phases of mental stability was very well executed, leaving the audience to genuinely question the reality and semantics of Robert being deemed mentally ill versus other relative classifications with which he had never been formally diagnosed. The tension and back and forth through some of the more confrontational conversations between Catherine and Claire created a lingering tension and feelings of resentment and frustration between the characters’ competing interests and perspective. Ndoye and Pazos did an excellent job of portraying a realistic look into that sister relationship dynamic where one clearly feels they know better than the other. The level of contrast demonstrated in these characters was incredibly effective. While early on in the first act, I was a little skeptical and not completely sold on the chemistry between Catherine and Hal, portrayed by Campbell-Cueva, the more I witnessed their relationship develop and their individual character strengths and flaws arise, one particular realization came to mind: these are two mathematical prodigies for all intents and purposes, who do not necessarily subscribe to the dialogue or social behaviors that are perhaps more commonly depicted and romanticized when it comes to relationship initiation and attraction, early expression of feelings, sexual exploration, relationship building, and so on. My mind was changed by the conclusion of the play; their interpretations of the characters, in many ways, were really suited for each other – with total disregard for the unfortunate development that I will not mention to avoid any storyline spoilers. I enjoyed Ndoye’s take on Catherine and how she portrayed her dealing with the invasive inquiries and suggestions of her sister as well as the unique relationship she had with her father, clearly of genuine love and loyalty.
As a behavioral health professional in the field, I couldn’t help but find myself deducing the factual behaviors of Robert and Catherine in regards to the suggested and stated implications of their “mental health state.” An important question as an audience is: whose perspective and reality are we viewing this through? And is this scope of experience factual or subjective? How can we separate perception from reality? In a social climate where discourse on the impacts of mental health risk factors is so prominent, I think this play is incredibly relevant and important, particularly when considering the objective examination of human behaviors and the factors which make someone clinically appropriate to diagnose as having a mental illness or disability versus a degenerative disease or a cognitive impairment, or neurodivergence, or something else. It’s easy to throw around diagnoses and words like “crazy” or stick individuals into stereotypes like the old man gone insane from his genius discoveries. For me, this production calls into question the differences in others, the fine line of autonomy, lucidity, and cognitive function, as well as how misinterpretations of the clinical definitions of these very serious diagnoses and stereotypes can cause significant harm and trauma to an individual when these dialogues are pushed onto a person or when appropriate interventions and treatment are not utilized. Thankfully, we have come a long way since the writing of this play in making evidenced-based and informed decisions about our loved ones when it comes to mental health and capacity and the rights of the patient. The character of Claire stands out to me the most in this regard and I think her behaviors and approach to try to “help” and “fix” Catherine, are still an echo in the mirror for many in our society, and one that we can learn from.
I highly recommend that those who have not yet seen this production, come support the Pima Theatre program and its students.
Get your tickets for Cabaret and future shows at Pima Community College | Ticketing – Ticket Office Home (universitytickets.com). The show runs until April 23rd, Th-Sat at 7 p.m., Sun at 2 p.m at the Proscenium Theatre on 2202 W Anklam Rd, Tucson, AZ 85709. General tickets are $15 and $10 for Students/Seniors/Military/Pima Employees/Groups.