The right formula

The right formula

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Matt Liptak)

Does mental illness go hand-in-hand with genius? That’s the unsettling question facing Catherine as she watches her intellectual, yet deeply ill father slide out of reach in “Proof.”

Catherine (Anna Fagan) lives with her professor father in an unsettling world of mental illness reminiscent of the film “A Beautiful Mind.” Robert (Chuck Leonard), a brilliant mathematician whose elegant formulas and research on prime numbers dazzle his peers, believes aliens send him messages through the Dewey Decimal System. He suffers from depression and psychotic episodes that Catherine fears could be genetic.

“Crazy people don’t ask each other if they’re nuts,” he explains as she holes up in her room reading fashion magazines.

When Hal (Josh Goldman), a former student of Robert’s, comes to their home after the professor’s death in hopes of discovering publishable formulas, Catherine — a math whiz in her own right — gets suspicious that he has intellectual theft on his mind.

His intrusion sends her into depression as well, but the two need each other. Their discussion of Sophie Germaine, an 18th century mathematician who hid her genius by writing under a man’s name, proves excellent foreshadowing. Could Catherine be as brilliant as her famous father?

But when her sister, Claire (Elizabeth Keith), shows up at the family’s suburban house to help with funeral arrangements, she decides Catherine cannot handle life alone. The determined Claire must take her sister back with her to New York City for psychiatric help.

“Proof,” set in the 1990s, switches back and forth over a four-year period, covering Catherine’s close bond with her father, her testy but compliant relationship with Claire and her curious partnership with Hal. The tidy four-person cast juggles complex emotional turns with ease in this Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play written by David Auburn.

Laced with wry comedy, this play explores mental illness as it relates to genius through a storyline as complicated as it is uplifting. Susan Devine, who consulted with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Flint Hill School teacher William VanLear to gain insight on the topic, directs an impressive cast that has both the strength and confidence the tale demands.

Leonard, who himself is a director, reminds this reviewer of John Cleese, skillfully capturing the humor and subtleties of his role. Fagan clearly is completely immersed in a tricky part, swinging from upbeat to somber at the drop of a hat. Goldman, who has appeared in several productions at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, proves he has an impressive range while Keith, another alum, gives a shining performance as the self-centered sister.

“Proof” runs through March 29 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria. For tickets and information call the box office at 703-683-0496 or visit