Hard evidence

Early into the North Carolina Stage Company’s production of Proof, a widowed mathematician-genius enjoying a break from crippling dementia tries to assure his daughter that she won’t share his sad fate.

Robert (Kermit Brown) proposes that even though Catherine (Anne Thibault) may have inherited his leanings toward numerical brilliance, she’s shielded herself from any hereditary madness simply by asking herself if she’s still sane.

Crazy people, so goes the original catch-22, don’t wonder if they’re crazy.

This logic works for a moment, till Catherine points out that Robert — indisputably, if inconsistently, unbalanced — actually does recognize his maddened state. And so the hopeful model breaks down.

It’s natural to want to relate to existence in terms that can, like tools, be manipulated. We all build myths for ourselves, assemble comforting stories that make life more navigable.

The effects of personal cosmologies are potentially all the more potent for geniuses — and, likewise, all the more crushing for such people when their models fail.

David Auburn’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award-winning play, assembled from a series of flashbacks, focuses largely on daughter Catherine, who’s forced to abandon her own studies — almost her whole life — to care for her ill father. His genius, which we’re told has revolutionized three fields of mathematics, has become wildly misdirected, compelling Robert to search for alien transmissions in Dewey-decimal codes, and to fill stacks of composition books with meaningless scribbles.

Five years of Catherine’s life have been spent in this reversed familial role — feeding her father, reminding him not to sit outside in the Chicago winter, making him bathe. The isolation becomes for her both a prison and a shield. Catherine is acutely aware of her lack of friends, but remains deeply hesitant when Hal (Matt Opatrny), one of her father’s students, attempts to coax her out of her habitual isolation.

Catherine’s non-genius sister Claire (Connan Morrissey), a New Yorker who attempts to impose an equally artificial yuppie logic on her numerically inclined family, also seeks to draw Catherine out. Claire’s mission is to pull her sister away from their father’s influence, as though geographic distance, big-city culture and expensive kitchen gadgets might rescue Catherine from hereditary insanity.

Genius and madness aside, the play’s domestic issues are hardly unique: Forgotten and remembered anniversaries, impassioned debate over dinner plans, habitual shared activities maintained or abandoned. All form a language of coded interactions — equations and formulas for loves and fears far more significant than surfaces reveal.

In Proof, these interactions are dramatized in a strikingly human fashion.

Every scene, every encounter, suggests its characters’ multiple understandings and relationships, the collective meaning of their associations. Pay particular attention to the dialogue, because every line — naturally and fluidly delivered by the N.C. Stage Company’s excellent cast — is densely packed with meaning, suggestion and, often, irony.

The local production is a rare, synergistic treat — right down to practical matters. In particular, a remarkably well-executed collaboration between set designers and lighting technicians created a mood more suggestive of human intimacy than a motion-picture close-up could ever hope to achieve.

Proof runs at North Carolina Stage Company’s 99-seat theater (accessible behind the Rankin Street parking deck, across from Zambra on Walnut Street) through Sunday, Nov. 30. Curtain time is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets cost $12-$18, with special discounts available (pay-what-you-can night is Wednesday, Nov. 19). For information or tickets, call the theater box office at 350-9090.

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