‘Proof’ tackles loss, mental illness and gender inequality

by Elizabeth Garrison | 3/1/18 2:05am

This weekend, the theater department will present this winter term’s student production “Proof.” Originally written by David Auburn, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work, the play is directed by Louisa Auerbach ’20 and stars Claire Feuille ’18, Macguinness Galinson ’21, Tess McGuinness ’18 and theater professor James Rice. Covering themes of loss, mental illness and gender inequality, the play follows McGuinness as Catherine, the daughter of lauded mathematician Robert, played by Rice, after she loses her father and attempts to live up to his legacy as a mathematical genius and inherits his struggle with mental illness. After a mathematical proof that Catherine claims to have wrote is discovered in one of her father’s notebooks, her love interest Hal and her sister Claire refuse to believe her as Catherine struggles to prove her authorship.

McGuinness, a theater minor at Dartmouth, proposed producing “Proof” as her senior project. McGuinness said when she first saw the play in high school, the protagonist Catherine’s story left a strong impression on her. Since her arrival at Dartmouth, McGuinness said she has dreamed of producing and starring in “Proof,” and that dream is finally becoming a reality.

“In the play, Catherine’s father Robert is kind of her best friend, but the real essence of him had been gone for a while before his death,” McGuinness said. “It’s like she has to grieve twice: once for the loss of her father’s mind and once for the physical loss of her father.”

McGuinness said that to get into the mindset of her character, she had to imagine losing a parent and connect her own experiences of loss to the character’s perspective.

When McGuiness envisioned producing “Proof,” she said she imagined Robert being played by a professor rather than a student to truly capture the father-daughter relationship. Rice said he was thrilled to be part of the production and described Robert as a compelling character to play.

“In some cases, visionary mathematicians, who are grappling with concepts that there aren’t even symbols to communicate, descend into madness, where the scale tips from brilliance to insanity,” Rice said. “I think it’s interesting the balance that we all walk in our own sanity.”

McGuinness said she admires how “Proof” presents mental illness with depth.

“Something that really strikes me about ‘Proof’ is the complexity and brilliance with which it deals with mental health,” she said. “I think it’s so rare, especially in theater, that mental health is dealt with in a multifaceted and productive manner.”

McGuinness said that seeing a character who is depressed but not defined by her depression, as well as a play that is not defined by mental illness, will help spark a conversation about mental health on campus.

Auerbach said she got involved with the project when McGuinness invited her to direct the show. Auerbach believes that the themes of “Proof” will strongly resonate with the Dartmouth community.

“I think at a school like Dartmouth, pressure is kind of the norm,” she said. “It’s odd if there’s a time in your life where you’re not under pressure, and I think people really need to see other people struggling to understand that what they are dealing with is not abnormal.”

Ultimately, Auerbach said she hopes that the show will give audience members a new perspective.

“I really want people to go [to ‘Proof’] and see that it’s okay to have self-doubt, and it’s okay to struggle,” she said. “I think that seeing people on stage struggle makes it possible for people to understand their own life a little bit better which is what theater has always done for me.”

In addition to issues of mental health and academic pressure, the play also exposes audiences to the struggles of women in science, technology, engineering and medical fields. “Proof” stage manager Virginia Ogden ’18 said that a female character attempting to prove herself through mathematics is not typical subject matter for a play.

“I think that everyone who watches ‘Proof’ is let into a world that they are probably unfamiliar with,” she said. “And I think that is what the best theater does, it shows you characters that you may not know otherwise. Normally, in media and entertainment, you don’t glorify the people who are sitting in rooms working through complex numbers and math problems, even though it’s some of the most important work of our time.”

Rice said that one of his students who studies mathematics empathized with the play.

“So much of the play resonated with him as a mathematician; the playwright created an entire network of underlying themes through authentic mathematics,” he said.

Ogden said it was very meaningful for her to be a part of a production that was driven by women.

“I’ve been told over and over again that theater is a man’s world,” she said. “Stage managing is a man’s world; directing is a man’s world. So it’s really cool to have this microcosm at Dartmouth where the producer and project proposer is a woman, the director is a woman, the stage manager is a woman [and] the designers are women. [Proof] is a show about how women can find so much disrespect outside of traditional female circles. So we’re fortunate enough at Dartmouth to be taken seriously as female student practitioners of theater.”

“Proof” will debut tonight at 8 p.m. Two more performances will be given on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. All three performances will be at the Bentley Theater at the Hopkins Center For the Arts.