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The key to the equation

In Proof, the playwright infuses mathematics into theater without losing the audience.

Published May 22, 2005

Generally, science and art stand some distance apart, eyeing each other warily and not quite understanding each other.

That's what makes Proof, David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning, math-driven play such a remarkable achievement, says Kate Warner, director of the American Stage production that opens this week.

Auburn has found the soul in mathematics, she says, the poet in the mathematician.

"What's interesting to me is that this play isn't so much about sciences and mathematics. It's about scientists and mathematicians. It's about what pushes them to solve these problems, about who they are and what drives them."

For Warner, it was something of a revelation to discover through the play that mathematicians can be driven by the same quest for truth, beauty and elegance that drives artists.

"In fact, that word, elegance, is used several times in this play when these characters are talking about their work," Warner said.

Auburn created his play in response to a Manhattan Theater Club challenge to find ways to create drama about mathematics and science. The way he succeeded was to use math as the backdrop for a drama about relationships and the human condition.

"I really tap into that humanity that's behind the decisions in someone's life," said Katherine Tanner, who has the lead role in the production. "Why do we make the decisions we make? It's basically because someone has influenced us sometime in our lives."

Proof revolves around Catherine, a brilliant mathematician caring for her equally brilliant father. His mental illness dominates their lives. But after his death, Catherine finds notebooks in which he has apparently solved a math equation that had been considered unsolvable. So the question arises: Was he really the author of the proof?

There are elements of mystery along with the character study, Warner said, and as in a classic mystery the audience and the characters are working on the solution at the same time.

Although the science and the mystery parallel each other in the play, those who panicked at the math portion of the SAT shouldn't fear this show.

"It's not like we're speaking a different language," Tanner said. "You don't have to be an expert in algebra or trigonometry."

Tanner, who's based in Sarasota, is making her St. Petersburg debut with Proof. But the cast also includes some veterans of local stages, including Julie Rowe, as Catherine's older sister Claire; Tom Nowicki as the women's father; and Brian Shea as the graduate student who turns up wanting to sift through the notebook.

Warner runs a respected Atlanta theater called Dad's Garage, and she's working with American Stage for the first time. She didn't know much about the state of theater in this area until she started working on Proof.

"This cast is amazing," she said. "I'm really lucky to be working with this A-list group."

PREVIEW: Proof, at American Stage through June 26. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets $21-$34 previews, this Wednesday and Thursday, are half-price. "Pay What You Can" nights are scheduled for June 7 and June 21. Student rush tickets, available 30 minutes before curtain, are $10. Call (727) 823-7529 or go to

[Last modified May 19, 2005, 10:42:03]

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