Calculations on the edge of sanity in this eye-opening 'Proof'

You may well think you have seen David Auburn's "Proof," the story of a single, 25-year-old Hyde Park woman grieving for the mathematically brilliant father who has left her bereft. The Broadway national tour came through Chicago. There was a very solid production at the Goodman Theatre, featuring an African-American cast. And there was the 2005 John Madden movie, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. But director Charles Newell's revelatory new take on this Chicago story at the Court Theatre — which features a simply breathtaking and currently peerless central performance from Chaon Cross — explodes all those other productions, deconstructing what has always been seen as a well-made play so it becomes instead an intensely expressionistic portrait of a brilliant woman teetering on the grieving edge of insanity.

You may well have seen "Proof," but you've not seen this "Proof." This "Proof" is engaged with a different set of problems — mathematical, psychological and existential.

The big Hyde Park house usually lends this play a romantic gauze, picking up on the play's nostalgic appreciation for the pleasures of autumn at the University of Chicago, with packed bookstores, sailboats on the lake, the occasional gusting reminder of the bracingly intellectual winter to come. All of that has been thrown away, along with all of the other detritus of Broadway-type realism. All that is left of the usual porch is a creepy swing, upon which Cross' deeply disturbed Catherine can throw her panicked body and below which she can curl up, in a fetal position, unsure whether to summon or banish the ghost of her father, played with cold-eyed precision by Kevin Gudahl.

Martin Andrew's wholly surprising set (aided by a shrewd costume design from Rachel Laritz and lit by Keith Parham) seems both to set Catherine in the middle of a boxy mathematical problem and to physicalize her constant mood swings. Newell's way into this play is the knife-edge of Catherine's mental state. Most productions of "Proof" treat that malaise lightly: this woman has, after all, just lost the father whom she loves and resembles, and, in the course of the play, she manages to go to his funeral, deal with her annoying but well-meaning sister (played far away from the usual stereotype by Megan Kohl) and even conduct a tortuous relationship with one of her father's old graduate students, played, with a very affecting sadness and sense of personal confusion and self-aware ineptitude by Erik Hellman. But her late dad battled mental illness, we're told. And in Newell's production, this chip off the old block is dealing with a compound version of the same struggle.

"Proof" has, for sure, elements of the well-made play. There is a little mystery over who wrote what in a notebook; various revelations unspool; a standard Hollywood ending prevails. But not only is this a closely observed example of its type, but Newell's new production makes you see that Auburn's play is more Stoppardian in its complexity than has been acknowledged. Or so it seems. And there are shades, now, of the melancholy of Arthur Miller. Newell achieves this in no small measure by freeing the actors physically, setting up the kind of style one associates with Anne Bogart's SITI Company of New York and allowing Cross, who throws herself into this part with a kind of sensual abandon, to manifest her character's inner traumas through her body, which, at one very powerful point, falls into the rain. You're not sure if the moment is defiant or helpless.

Cross' work is so fine because it goes everywhere Newell seems to want her character to go without losing the humor, credibility or geek-sexy charm of her gal. Her Catherine is intensely vulnerable and yet also scary, bringing her much more close to the edge than I've seen her go. That's true of the whole production really.

"Proof," I've long thought, makes the case for Chicago better than any tourism ad. It captures its earnestness, intellectualism and insecurity. It pokes fun at the dweebs of Evanston and Ellis Avenue (all the better when the show is playing on Ellis Avenue in Hyde Park). It makes the case that the more profound lives on this planet are pure, academic, somewhat impotent, and lived away from the center of power and money. This is a fine, gutsy production from a director who, when working on the right material, is capable of unspooling revelations in such a way that clarity and intensification seem to just keep on coming, like a math geek with an idea, compounding and compounding an idea that eventually checks out.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through April 14

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Tickets: $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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