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Smart script, great actors add up to success in Court’s ‘Proof’

KevGudahl as Robert ChaCross as Catherine David Auburn's 'Proof' Court Theatre. Phoby Michael Brosilow.

Kevin Gudahl as Robert and Chaon Cross as Catherine in David Auburn's "Proof" at Court Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

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When: Through April 7

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis

Tickets: $45-$65

Info: (773) 753-4472;

Run time: 2 hours with one intermission

Updated: March 23, 2013 6:22PM

Mathematicians often talk about “a beautiful proof” or “an elegant proof” — suggesting the way all the elements of a fundamental problem can find ideal expression in those oddly abstract yet crucial things we call numbers.

Mathematical beauty on that level might well be beyond the understanding of most of us. But audiences can almost always identify a beautiful play when they see it. And there can be no doubt that David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning “Proof,” now in an emotionally piercing (and, at many moments, downright funny) revival at Court Theatre, has a particular beauty and elegance in terms of its ideas, structure and insights into the complex nature of inheritance, both intellectual and psychological. Like the play, this production is exceedingly smart. More importantly, it is fierce.

I’ve seen several different productions of this play over the years, but director Charles Newell, in collaboration with his ideal cast and inspired design team, has tapped some elemental truths here. And he has tapped the play’s Stoppardlike spirit, too, suggesting that brainiacs are no better equipped at dealing with human passions than anyone else.

Auburn (a University of Chicago grad who did not study math but did begin writing comedy sketches at the school) set “Proof” in that very particular Hyde Park world. At the play’s center is Catherine (Chaon Cross), whose father, Robert (Kevin Gudahl), did groundbreaking, career-making mathematical work in his early 20s but has tragically spent many unproductive years since suffering from mental illness, with only periodic bursts of manic energy that found him filling notebooks full of nonsense.

Catherine is 25 when her father dies, though he remains a profound if ghostly presence in her life. Like him, she has a gift for math, but she has essentially sacrificed her most promising years of education and much else to serve as his caretaker in their timeworn house near the campus. She’s exhausted, and terrified she may have inherited her dad’s brilliance and mental illness, and things begin to change all too quickly after his death.

Hal (Erik Hellman), her father’s former student, now a struggling teacher at the university, wants to read through Robert’s many notebooks, hungry to see if there is anything of potential value hidden in them. And along the way, more than a few sparks are struck between him and Catherine.

Meanwhile, Claire (Megan Kohl), Catherine’s older sister — a certified yuppie who lives in New York, is about to be married and has been supporting her father and sister from a safe distance — arrives for their dad’s funeral and quickly makes plans for her sister’s uprooting. Catherine’s revelation that she has independently devised a complex proof, of the likes that has eluded even the most highly experienced mathematicians, only fuels Claire’s belief that her sister is off track.

Is Catherine mad and deluded? Or is she yet another of history’s female geniuses whose brilliance goes unrecognized because of the prejudices against women?

Cross, a petite, physically audacious beauty — absent from Court Theatre for far too long — makes a stunning return here in a rubbed-raw performance that keeps you watching and guessing at every turn. Hellman perfectly captures the essence of Hal as a nerdy charmer with an opportunistic streak. Gudahl does his finest work in years in the tricky but vital role of Robert. And Kohl is as off-putting as she must be.

Martin Andrew’s burnished set, a giant mullioned window suggesting graph paper, frees the play of its realistic Hyde Park architecture. And periodic bursts of cleansing rain add a sense of ritual in this very real yet beautifully abstracted rendering of “Proof.”

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