When a fine play and excellent actors come together, it’s theater alchemy. “Proof,” a well-crafted play by David Auburn, won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award. In the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre production, directed by Teresa Thuman, the four actors are outstanding. Three of them are new to Central Coast stages, and they are a welcome addition to the regional theater scene.
The set, designed by David Linfield, is the back of a dilapidated old house with a squeaky screen door, and the action takes place in the yard and patio. It’s the home of Robert, a once-famous mathematics professor, and his daughter, Catherine.
The title of the play refers to a mathematical proof, a theorem about prime numbers, but the word “proof” takes on different meanings as the play progresses, from the literal mathematical proof to questions of honesty and trust as Catherine tries to prove herself.
Robert, a celebrated genius as a young man, had lapsed into mental illness about a decade earlier. Four years before the action of the play begins he had nine months of remission, when he returned to teach at the University of Chicago, but that didn’t last.
Catherine has given up her own education to take care of him throughout his illness, and when he dies, she is tired and disheveled in mind, body and spirit. In the first scene, in a bit of magic realism, Catherine is visited by her father, who died a week earlier. Although it might seem to be a dream, the bottle of champagne he brings her for her birthday is still there the next morning.
Gwendolyn Gay is superb as Catherine, frazzled and at loose ends, even wondering if she has inherited her father’s illness as well as his genius.
Tom Ammon, who has been seen in numerous productions in the region, plays Catherine’s father, who reappears in flashbacks. He is a sympathetic character as he goes from humorous moments to touching monologue to high drama.
Hal, a mathematician and former protégé of Robert, is also introduced in the first scenes. He has received Catherine’s permission to search through her father’s notebooks in hopes of discovering some mathematical treasure, although she believes that the notebooks filled with scribblings are all gibberish.
Nathan Emmons is excellent as Hal, a sweet geek with good intentions, but an awkward way of expressing them. He is caught between adoration of the father and attraction to the daughter, but confused by the scenario that is unfolding. Emmons is relatively new to the area and teaches theater at Nipomo High School.
When Claire, Catherine’s older sister, arrives for the funeral, she announces that she has come to sell the house and take Catherine to New York for a change of scene and, probably, the services of a shrink. Alyson Wren is Claire, an organized, uptight contrast to the blowsy Catherine. Wren is good as she walks the line between being truly obnoxious and really caring for her sister.
The plot of the play is an unraveling secret, and describing it here would ruin it for audiences. Questions are posed, and scenes alternate between the present and the past as everyone seeks answers, and we come to care for the fates of Catherine and Hal. As the play progresses, it becomes more and more engrossing as the audience becomes entangled in the characters’ search for truths. It’s a story that could have one of several endings, either satisfying or tragic — or enigmatic — and that’s why it becomes gripping.
IF YOU GO
7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through April 27
San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, 888 Morro St., San Luis Obispo
$15 to $25
786-2440 or www.slolittletheatre.org