Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 2003
What’s the probability of all these elements coming together? The right people for the right play at the right time. Sam Woodhouse calls it “a confluence of opportunities.”
It all comes together as “Proof.” As the opener of the 28th season of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, co-founder/artistic director Woodhouse has chosen David Auburn’s award-winning drama that unites mystery, madness and mathematics.
“I think the play is a near-perfect piece of dramatic construction,” says Woodhouse. “An exquisitely crafted mystery. The longest running straight play on Broadway in the past 20 years. I’m a great fan of mysteries; they’re my reading hobby. I was intrigued by the diamond-like intrigue of the play. It’s a thoroughly satisfying mystery. But it’s also a beautiful love story.”
“Proof,” which won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, focuses on the passage to adulthood of brilliant, 25 year-old Catherine, whose late father, a famous mathematician, descended into madness. She dropped out of school to care for him, and she’s plagued by the question of whether she’s inherited her father’s insanity along with his mathematical genius. Her vapid, yuppie sister is envious of Catherine’s brains and parental bond. The math-drone, Hal, idolized Robert and is attracted to Catherine. And at the center of the intrigue, there’s the insoluble mathematical proof that Robert left behind….
Woodhouse has decided to emerge from a nearly decade-long hiatus from performing to tackle the role of Robert.
“I chose to act again because I was emotionally and viscerally drawn to the play,” Woodhouse confesses. “I think there’s madness and genius in all of us. [during the rehearsal process] my task is to find both in myself.”
Woodhouse has surrounded himself with the perfect people to help him do the job. Aside from acting in the play, he’s co-directing, with Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the Rep’s artistic associate, a 2002 recipient of a New Generations Grant from the Theatre Communications Group and Doris Duke Foundation. The program nurtures the leaders and artistic directors of tomorrow. Sonnenberg’s mentor is Woodhouse, who’s old enough to be her father. The parallels are not lost on either of them.
“Our generational, gender relationship is a fascinating echo of the world of the play,” says Woodhouse. “The core of the piece is the relationship between a middle-age man and his daughter. Delicia isn’t my daughter, but she’s certainly part of the Rep ‘family.’ She’s my mentee. And the play is about the transfer of destiny.”
According to Sonnenberg, “In the play, a young woman is coming into her own. It’s a mission I’m on myself. It’s all about relationships: parents and children, siblings, a budding new romance. One of the beautiful things about the play is that it’s set against a backdrop of mathematics.”
And that brings us to another piece of the “karmic confluence” of this production. In the lead role of Catherine, the co-directors have cast L.A. actress/writer/director Danica McKellar, best known as Winnie Cooper on “The Wonder Years” and her recurring role as Elise Snuffin on “The West Wing.” McKellar, the daughter of one of San Diego’s major developers (Chris McKellar), took a break from acting to complete her degree at UCLA — in mathematics (summa cum laude, with departmental honors). There, she wrote a mathematical proof that currently bears her name. She has spoken before a Congressional subcommittee about the importance of women in math and science. She designed a website to help young women solve their mathematical problems. And when she found out about “Proof,” she knew that she would play that role some time soon.
“She’s an incandescent actor,” says Woodhouse. “And I don’t use that phrase very often. She has tremendous empathy and vulnerability, and a razor-sharp mind. And of course, it’s extraordinary, how intellectually and emotionally connected she is to the character and the play.”
“She’s fearless,” echoes Sonnenberg. “She’s a powerhouse theater actress in the making. She has all the tools she needs; she just hasn’t labeled them yet. She listens with her whole body. She’s charming, friendly; and the smartest person I’ve met in a long time. And she just happens to be a math genius.”
The co-directors have never worked together like this, and Woodhouse has never acted in a play he’s directed. Both are excited by the challenges, and thrilled with the rest of the cast: Francis Gercke, Patté Award-winning founder and artistic director of North County’s electric New Village Arts theater, a graduate of the Actors Studio, plays Hal. And L.A. actress Cheryl Kenan Fording (a graduate of Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre) plays the ‘sensible’ sister.
“Ultimately, we want the audience to take the journey with us,” says Woodhouse. “It’s the story of a young woman facing the challenge of claiming her adulthood. That’s one reason it impacts audiences. We all face that struggle and challenge. Here, it’s told in the context of a tightly wound family story. The playwright effectively puts us in the vehicle, with Catherine in the driver’s seat, and we take that journey with her.”
You do the math. Seems like it all adds up for the Rep production.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.