Nora’s ‘Proof’: The mystery behind the numbers

Cheryl Daro and Lisa Nguyen in “Proof.” Photo A.R. Sinclair Photography

CAMBRIDGE – I was starting to wonder why it took so long. It would seem that David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Proof” would be a logical fit for the science-themed Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT series at the Central Square Theater.

But “Proof” has had several professional productions in the area in recent years and it may well be the Nora Theatre Company decided to bide its time before re-introducing the piece to Greater Boston audiences.

Nora Artistic Director Lee Mikeska Gardner approached director Michelle M. Aguillon with the idea of casting the family as Asian, undoubtedly cautious because of the stereotypical view about Asians and Asian-Americans being good in math, and especially so with a play having as its core two characters who are brilliant mathematicians. She also wanted Aguillon’s view on how Asians might process the death of a father, another thread in the plot of “Proof.” Aguillon and Gardner agreed the approach would work.

“Proof” doesn’t delve as deeply into the science of mathematics as some of the other science plays in the Catalyst Collaborative series, and that’s good for theater-goers, whose eyes won’t glaze over during the discussion of notebook-long mathematical proofs.

It is first and foremost a family/relationship drama, having to do with a complex web of emotions two sisters deal with both before and after the death of their talented but troubled widower father, a brilliant mathematician forced out of the game by his mental deterioration

“Proof” moves backward and forward in time so Michael Tow as Robert, the father, is in the picture much of the time.

Lisa Nguyen’s portrayal of Catherine, the talented but troubled daughter who cared for her father before his death, is a bit muted and understated in her early scenes, a bit slow to begin even with her first encounters with Hal (Avery Bargar), the geeky-cool doctoral student whom Robert once advised.

Hal takes it upon himself to explore the work Robert left behind in an effort to discover a heretofore undiscovered gem.

It is not until Nguyen as Catherine goes head-to-head with sister Claire (Cheryl Daro) that she begins to warm up to the task. They have heated discussions about decisions they both made when it was apparent their father could no longer care for himself. Catherine abandoned what was a nascent math career at Northwestern to stay home.

Cheryl Daro’s Claire is the most fully realized performance in the production at this point in the run as the sister who left Chicago for New York, found a job and a fiancee, and now is determined to bring Catherine back with her, after their father’s death, to New York for a fresh start

But there are complications, especially when Hal and Catherine become a duo. When Hal finds a notebook which appears to contain a groundbreaking proof for a complicated theorem, the obvious question becomes: How much of Robert’s talent for mathematics did Catherine actually inherit? “Proof” becomes a science-themed whodunit, trying to unlock the mystery of just who is behind the discovery.

I do have a small bone to pick with the appearance of Tow as Robert. The aging process and especially the deterioration of one’s mental health have a way of affecting our appearance dramatically, but Robert has a robust and unaffected appearance throughout, what you’d expect from someone who has been through the wringer as he has.

The action all plays out on Janie E. Howland’s ramshackle back porch of a family home that has seen better days.

For all of its talk about math, “Proof” is a family drama. Using the science of mathematics as a platform, Auburn dives off it to explore the link between genius and madness, the traits we inherit from our parents and the duties of a child when it comes to caring for a troubled parent.

“Proof” presents all the requisite twists and turns of a thriller that will keep you interested and engaged, just enough science to sound authentic, and enough family drama and conflict to satisfy the emotional side of the brain.

The Nora Theatre Company production of “Proof.” Written by David Auburn. Directed by Michelle M. Aguillon. Set design by Jenna McFarland Lord. At the Central Square Theater through Feb. 18.,.

Cheryl Daro and Lisa Nguyen in “Proof.” Photo A.R. Sinclair Photography