Proof-ing Mental Illness

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A disheveled young woman holds her head between her hands in sorrow and exhaustion. Grotesquely hunched over a chair, her gaze slowly rolls up and out towards the audience. The audience is assaulted by the absent, detached face of the main character Catherine, courageously played by Jessica Waldman ‘15. Immediately, her troubled mind is made apparent to the audience through her physical constrictions and directionless stare. Lost in this murky liminal space between the audience and her presence, I sat in the front row removed from reality. By the end of the show, I realized it was this frightening disconnection that characterizes Catherine’s mental struggle, and she gives it to us from the first light onstage.

All of this occurs in the jarring stillness that opens Proof. Under the direction of Noemi Ola Berkowitz ’16, the play brings the subject of mental illness to the forefront of public discourse. Nestled within a family fraught with psychological disorders, Catherine’s character evolves into the horrifying memory of her genius mathematician – gone psychotic father (played by Matthew Libby ‘17) over the course of the play. Heavily character driven, the four person show circles around the reenactment of his presence in order to discover the real authorship of a paradigm crushing mathematical proof. The pseudo-superiority of Catherine’s sister Claire (Lucie Fleming ‘17) and her love interest with her father’s pupil Hal (Patrick James Lawhon ‘16) complicate Catherine’s evaluation of her own mental state, constantly causing her to question her sanity and ask, “What if I’m crazy?” This word is tossed around in the dialogue like a dogbone: no one can really chew on it completely before it is taken away and the topic is dropped. Whilst confronting Catherine’s predisposition for mental illness, the characters also talk in circles around the taboo subject. This hits at the polarity of how society deals with psychological issues today: Head on, but with an underlying fear that too much discussion may reveal something unnervingly wrong with each of our inner selves.

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Playwright David Auburn’s intentions are deliberate through his conflation of the past and present in crafting Catherine’s mental transformation. Seated in the freezing cold of December on their front porch, Robert’s (the father) elderly arthritis- laden body compulsively scribbles in one of his many notebooks, endlessly striving to solve mathematical proofs. Matthew Libby’s ghostly appearance embodies his physical memory. His image to the audience is a projection of Catherine’s imagination, revealing the influence he holds in her mental degeneration—asking the question of what type of mental disorder is symbolized, schizophrenia? Schizoid personality disorder? Really, it doesn’t matter. The daring discussion of mental trauma onstage stands alone as a feat in theatre and for a production at Stanford. Curtailing off Stanford Theatre Lab’s production of Next to Normal last spring, the risk-taking theatre group continues to scratch away at the hush-hush topic of mental disorders by situating this production during the darkest hour of the quarter – Weeks 7 and 8. Also cosponsored by the Psychology department, students enrolled in Psych 1 were required to attend (the course normally performs a staged reading each quarter). In many ways, Stanford’s brilliant students represent the hyper-intelligent nature of Robert but also his neurotic impulses. With duck syndrome as an ever-continuing disorder on campus, this production’s deliberate deconstruction of the mentally taboo couldn’t arrive at a more opportune time.

The manifestation of Libby’s character is created through the envisioning and abrasive actions of the three real characters in the show. As the audience most directly sees his lively image through the eyes of Catherine, interpretation is rooted in Catherine’s own degenerative psychosis, causing the audience and supporting characters to question her reliability as an individual. Senior Jessica Waldman plays her part with reckless ingenuity for the creeping anticipation of insanity and distrust. Her petite frame grows to a monstrous size in angered moments of self-defense, as we see her battling familial accusations of lunacy specifically from her sister Claire. An actress many years beyond her age, Lucie Fleming audaciously confronts her sister and the force of mental disorder in this household. Invoking a sinister maternal instinct into her role, Fleming’s acting is the spark that ignites the fire in this family. At times, I even found myself rooting for Claire’s desire in the story simply as a solution. Ultimately, this is what all the characters are striving for – an answer. An improvement. An answer to the discipline defining proof, an answer to whatever mental disorder plagues Catherine, an answer on how to improve the chaos in which they live.

Berkowitz’s astute production asks the audience the same thing, how will you find answer to the issue of mental illness in society and at Stanford? How will you converse about it in day-to-day life? We can take a lot of guidance from these characters, and in the words of Berkowitz learn to “humanize those who we may compelled to write off as crazy.”

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Photo Credit: Frank Chen

Proof. 8pm Nov 6-8 and 13-15 at the Elliot Programming Center. Ticket information here!

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