The Little Theater of Alexandria is staging "Proof," a dense and compact drama/comedy written by David Auburn about mathematics and mental illness that starred Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Hopkins in the 2005 film adaptation. The play, told in flashbacks, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
It stars four actors, including Anna Fagan in the role of young Catherine who struggles with mental illness and who inherited some of her dad's math genius. She had cared for her father Robert, played by Chuck Leonard, a deceased math professor at the University of Chicago who battled a long mental illness. Ex-grad student Hal (played by Josh Goldman), with whom Catherine has an affair, discovers a proof about prime numbers in Robert's writings. The title refers both to that proof and to the play's central question: Can Catherine prove the proof's authorship? The play also explores Catherine's fear of mental illness, following in her father's footsteps, and her attempt to stay in control.
"She's a brilliant mathematician but she associates that side of herself with the schizophrenia that her father had," said Fagan, 27, who works at GWU for her day job. "She's very dark. I found it challenging to play a character who is bitter. ... It's hard to express someone so angry and dark, but also show that she has positive qualities too."
Leonard, 53, of Burke, who plays the dad, was the real-life director of theater at Episcopal High School in Alexandria before taking a teaching job at the GMU Honors College where he knows a lot of mathematicians. "My father passed away years ago and had issues with dementia before he died," said Leonard. "So I wanted to make sure that aspect didn't get lost in stereotypical portrayal of mental illness."
"Proof" co-producer Kevin O'Dowd, 50, of Falls Church, who has produced 14 LTA productions, said, "The thing I liked about the play is how it explores the relation between brilliance and madness and how mental illness affects the family."
He had worked with Director Susan Devine years ago and wanted to work together again.
Devine, 56, of Fairfax, who called the script "simply brilliant," said they hired both a math and mental illness consultant to help the actors dissect their roles. "I always considered math as a metaphor for the complexities and struggles in life," said Devine. "With mental illness, it's very much the same — you either understand it or not."
Elizabeth Keith, 39, of Arlington, plays the role of Claire, the smart and rational sister from New York who has been providing financially for the family. "One of the beautiful things is that all of the characters are shown in good and bad situations," said Keith. "That was really fun to try to bring out those moments."
She adds: "Claire and Catherine have disagreed over the years about what is the best care for their father."
Set designer Daniel Remmers, 48, of Springfield roamed Google Earth for images of split-level homes in the Chicago suburbs to build the perfect set. "I thought the set should look like your parent's house and something that was old and run down," said Remmers, a physicist for the Navy. "The characters go through some difficult things, so I wanted a nice comfortable place for them to hang out."
"I wanted the audience to feel like the neighbors who were across the back yard looking in next door," said Devine, who also directed the LTA's production of "Chicago."
"Proof" runs through March 29 at the Little Theatre of Alexandria at 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria, VA 22314. Tickets are $17 and $20. Visit www.thelittletheatre.com or call 703-683-0496.