An Invigorating Comedy of Ideas, David Auburn’s “Proof” Won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama

Exit Through Eden's production of "Proof" will run on April 13-15 20-22 at Raleigh Ensemble Players' home at 213 Fayetteville St.
Exit Through Eden's production of "Proof" will run on April 13-15 20-22 at Raleigh Ensemble Players' home at 213 Fayetteville St.
Exit Through Eden's production of "Proof" will run on April 13-15 20-22 at Raleigh Ensemble Players' home at 213 Fayetteville St.
Exit Through Eden's production of "Proof" will run on April 13-15 20-22 at Raleigh Ensemble Players' home at 213 Fayetteville St.

Exit Through Eden’s inaugural production will be Proof, an invigorating comedy of ideas by award-winning American playwright David Auburn, who also co-wrote the book for Jonathan Larson’s 2001 Off-Broadway musical tick, tick … BOOM!, on April 13-15 and 20-22 in Raleigh Ensemble Players’ home at 213 Fayetteville St. in downtown Raleigh, NC. Proofuses the dynamics of a dysfunctional family, headed by an internationally renowned but emotionally unstable mathematician, to explore the fine line between genius and madness in the world of mathematics.

Proof had its world premiere Off-Broadway, directed by Daniel Sullivan, on May 23, 2000 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it played 79 performances before closing on July 30, 2000. The show starred Mary-Louise Parker as emotionally fragile one-time mathematics prodigy Catherine; Larry Bryggman as her father, Robert, a brilliant but mentally ill University of Chicago mathematics professor who has recently died; Ben Shenkman as Robert’s ex-student Harold “Hal” Dobbs; and Johanna Day as Catherine’s older sister Claire. Proof won the 2001 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play.

The show made its Broadway debut, with the same director and cast, on Oct. 24, 2000 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, where it played 917 performances before closing on Jan. 5, 2003. Proof won three 2001 Tony Award® Best Plays, including Best Play, Best Actress in a Play (Mary-Louise Parker as Catherine), and Best Direction of a Play (Daniel Sullivan), plus the 2001 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, the 2001 Drama League Award for Best Play, the 2001 Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

“I first discovered this play when I was taking a scene study class,” recalls Eric Hale, who will produce Proof for Exit Through Eden and play Robert. He notes, “[British philosopher and mathematician] Bertrand Russell [once] said, ‘Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are talking about is true.'”

Hale adds, “My degree is in computer science, from back in the days when that included a lot of applied mathematics. My wife’s degrees are in English and Social Work. We think about things very differently. That differing view of reality is part of what this play is about.

“There’s a line where Catherine says it’s only evidence, that can’t ever prove anything,” Hale explains. “If you understand math, that makes total sense. If you don’t, then it’s gibberish. Of the four characters, Robert, Hal, and Catherine all have a mathematical view of the world, while Robert’s older daughter, Claire, views the work in nonmathematical and, perhaps, more practical terms.”

Eric Hale confesses, “I was also fascinated [by a play] about a genius having only one person in the world with whom he could really talk; and the older daughter, Claire, growing up as the only non-genius in the house. It must have been one heck of a family reunion.”

When the curtain rises on Proof, says producer Eric Hale, “Catherine (Betsy Henderson) is the daughter of an insane genius, Robert (Eric Hale). After Robert’s death, the discovery of a groundbreaking proof [in his papers] may prove Catherine’s genius, or her madness. Battling for her soul are her successful older sister Claire (Page Purgar), her father’s former student Hal (Ryan Brock), and Catherine’s own memories of her dead father.”

In addition to producer Eric Hale, the Exit Through Eden creative team for Proof includes director and set and lighting designer Jason Sharp, costume designer Ruth Bryan, properties manager Sarah Goodwin, sound designer Steve Burnett, and stage manager Christine Zagrobelny.

Eric Hale says, “There is a single set, representing the back porch and partial backyard of [Robert’s] house. Thus, the set has two levels.

“The porch has no furniture. The yard space has two chairs and a side table, as well as a bird bath and a bench. The iron staircase intrinsic to the REP theater is used to represent the entrance to the house proper,” says Hale.

Although Hale admits it is hard to evaluate the show’s lighting scheme from his perspective on stage, he feels that the lights are “effective for setting the different times of day”; and he notes that “The play is set in the year 2000, so the costuming is contemporary. The costumer had fun distressing the clothes for Catherine and Robert, I think.”

The 2005 motion-picture version of Proof, directed by John Madden from a screenplay by Rebecca Miller and David Auburn, starred Gwyneth Paltrow as Catherine, Anthony Hopkins as Robert, Jake Gyllenhaal as Hal, and Hope Davis as Claire.

When reviewing the Broadway production of Proof for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Daniel Rockmore called the play a “wonderful drama that elegantly describes the world of mathematics, and suggests how ill-suited the mathematical notion of truth is for life. It’s impossible to divine the future, and it’s no easier to derive it. We’re only as certain as our next best guess.”

New York Post theater critic Clive Barnes wrote: “[Proof] is beautifully and closely plotted. OK, the story itself is not much more than a highbrow soap opera with painless references to mathematics. Yet Auburn, in his first Broadway outing, provides characters behaving credibly and natural dialogue without a single stagy phrase stumbling the flow and also ensures the tension is handsomely sustained.”

Bruce Weber of The New York Times added: “Without any baffling erudition — if you know what a prime number is, there won’t be a single line of dialogue you find perplexing — the play presents mathematicians as both blessed and bedeviled by the gift for abstraction that ties them achingly to one another and separates them, also achingly, from concrete-minded folks like you and me. And perhaps most satisfying of all, it does so without a moment of meanness.”

USA Today critic Elysa Gardner noted: “What’s perhaps most striking about Auburn’s writing, though, is his sense of structure, which is at once imaginative and stringently coherent. Veering gracefully from past to present and from reflection to confrontation, the playwright traces the development of his characters and plot with a scientist’s preciseness and a poet’s lyricism.”

Even New York magazine’s resident curmudgeon, theater critic John Simon, loved Proof: “David Auburn’s Proof is what Copenhagen ought to be: a play about scientists whose science matters less than their humanity,” Simon wrote. “Here, those of us who want their dramatic characters to be real people need not feel excluded. Robert, a world-famous mathematician who went crazy; Catherine, his mathematically brilliant but too-depressed-to-work daughter; Hal, a young math teacher going through Robert’s hundred-plus confused notebooks; and Claire, Robert’s older daughter and a successful actuary, are above all fascinating individuals. Robert isn’t any less human even for being, through most of the play, dead. All four — whether loving, hating, encouraging or impeding one another — are intensely alive, complex, funny, human.”

Exit Through Eden presents PROOF at 8 p.m. April 13 and 14, 3 p.m. April 15, 8 p.m. April 20 and 21, and 3 p.m. April 22 in Raleigh Ensemble Players’ home at 213 Fayetteville St., Suite 202, Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.

TICKETS: $10 ($5 students).

BOX OFFICE: 919-438-1132 or





The Play: (Wikipedia) and (Internet Broadway Database).

The Script: (Google Books).

The Film: (Wikipedia) and (Internet Movie Database).

The Playwright: (Wikipedia).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).