January 23, 2018

in Plays

Play (2000)
by David Auburn

Directed by Michelle M. Aguillon

The Nora Theatre Company
Central Square Theater
January 18 – February 18, 2018

With Lisa Nguyen (Catherine), Avery Bargar (Hal), Cheryl Daro (Claire), Michael Tow (Robert)

An eloquent and moving account of the Pulitzer Prize winning play about a schizophrenic mathematician, his talented, devoted and somewhat odd daughter, and the graduate student who comes to investigate his work.

Catherine (Lisa Nguyen), a woman of twenty-five, has lived for years with her brilliant but afflicted mathematician father, Robert (Michael Tow). When Hal (Avery Bargar), Robert’s student, comes to review some of his writings, he finds Katherine’s response intriguing and what follows upon their interaction forms the basis of discovering the “proof” of what emerges. Claire (Cheryl Daro), Catherine’s older sister, weighs in heavily as the voice of some variant of reason.

This really is a brilliant play and the current production, done with Asian actors playing the members of the mathematician’s family, provides an interesting twist. The sense of how devotion to scholarship, hard work, and filial duty figure into the mix and take cues from Asian culture, gives added weight to the psychological forces already written into the narrative.

Though, putatively, not much goes on here, the bends and turns of the narrative are managed so well in the script that each nuance of development carries significant weight. What looks like an ordinary conversation on the porch between father and daughter takes on, after a few minutes, an entirely different texture.

Though the irritable initial relation between Catherine and Hal fits in well with the typical romantic comedy model and is boosted by a lot of very funny dialogue, the context is dramatic and the vehicle of resistance engages darker energies that emerge from Catherine’s quarter. But she comes by her darkness honestly, and what surfaces is a reflection not only on madness and sanity but on the suppressed role of women in the field of mathematics despite what might seem very obviously like deserving candidates for intellectual reverence.

The nuances of the play are many and the dramatic and funny moments plentiful. The last line of the first act is one of the great ones of contemporary drama. The closing scene, though an emotionally wrenching cry for unchallenged belief, demonstrates in the wake of failing that, a commitment to a new form of personal “proof.” It’s a wonderful dramatic gesture, subtle, fitting and a dramatically satisfying closure.

Lisa Nguyen is a very fine Catherine, appropriately moody and restless, and shining with idealism and passion when required. Cheryl Daro is a hard-edged and sharply honed Claire, yet convincingly metes out tough love. When, however, she has her drunk scene in high heels she is totally hilarious. Avery Bargar is an affecting and sympathetic Hal, a diligent seeker of truth while a dutiful pursuer as well of personal intrigue and passion. And as Robert, the afflicted father, Michael Tow provides a steady and reassuring paternal presence while, when necessary, imperiously designating preferences for his daughter.

Sound design and music by Grant Furguiuele are appropriate combinations of spatial and moody description and atonal swaths that create a sense of dimension both domestic and unsettled. The scenic design by Janie E. Howland, basically a house facade and a porch, adequately do the trick.

– BADMan

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