Credit: Handout photo by Teresa Castracane

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In theater, it’s essential for an audience to be able to relate to the characters in the play, even when the play is about math. The mathematicians in David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Proof, however, describe math in a way that scarcely resembles your high school algebra class. It’s beautiful, ecstatic, capable of being fully grasped only by a few geniuses who must teeter on the edge of madness—and occasionally topple in—to do so. The play is set entirely on the back porch of a professor’s rickety old house near the University of Chicago, where phrases like “nonlinear operator theory” and “elliptic curves” are tossed around as if intoned by awestruck saints, overcome by the mysteries of the divine. 1st Stage’s production, enchantingly directed by Alex Levy, invites us to feel at home in this world, in which the math is infinitely less complicated than actual human relationships.

One of the mathematicians in question is Robert (Ray Ficca). After a stunning series of mathematical breakthroughs by age 23, he teeters on the aforementioned edge for a while before, finally, toppling in. Another is his 25-year-old daughter, Catherine (Katrina Clark), emotionally numb after years of taking care of him. The dialogue between father and daughter in the play’s memorable opening scene reveals that Robert has recently died, establishing the idea that he and Catherine might share more than an aptitude for math.

As the play progresses, Catherine sees her insular world begin to crumble, thanks to Hal (Sam Ludwig), a former student of Robert’s who’s investigating his papers with unclear intentions, and Claire (Liz Osborn), her estranged sister who’s just arrived from New York. After Catherine and Hal bond over their shared loss and spend the night together, she entrusts him with a secret that threatens to shatter that world permanently: It’s a notebook containing the titular proof, a remarkable math breakthrough which Catherine claims as her own, but whose authorship Hal questions.

The production’s strengths are manifold. Most noticeable among them is the set, imaginatively designed by Kathryn Kawecki, which surrounds the actors with an impressive backdrop of strewn-about papers, giving us visceral access to Catherine and Robert’s world of scribbled-in notebooks, promising ideas, and dead ends. Robbie Hayes’ outstanding lighting design illuminates this world further, colorfully reflecting the characters’ moods in every scene and during every transition.

The performances, while inconsistent, occasionally reach these same heights. The actors play off each other well and easily attune themselves to Auburn’s devilish sense of humor. (Hal, urging Catherine to come see his band: “I never sing, I swear to God.”) Clark’s Catherine is appealingly sullen, betraying both disengagement and anger at once. But she often fails to fully animate the character’s complex emotional state, particularly in the second act. Ludwig generally succeeds in evoking Hal’s geeky possessiveness of Robert’s legacy, and Osborn briskly and believably glosses over the introspection required of someone who’s allowed her younger sister to take care of her ailing father alone for years.

The best performance in the bunch comes from Ficca, who exudes genuine warmth in his three scenes. When the depths of his affliction are revealed late in the second act, it’s as emotionally devastating a moment as I can recall seeing in a play. That moment is also a testament to Levy’s direction: He masters the ebbs and flows of Auburn’s script, never pushing the drama too hard (aside from the almost comically heavy-handed way that the first act is brought to a close).

The program notes that, within two years of its initial production, Proof had become “the most widely produced play in the United States.” It’s easy to see why. Auburn’s script offers a multitude of opportunities for actors to explore the sort of deep questions about family and trust (and math!) that leave audiences enthralled long after the curtain has fallen. 1st Stage’s production serves up several moments that rise to meet the high level of the source material, and in those moments, we come to understand just how awe-inspiring a truly elegant proof can be.

1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons. $15–$30. (703) 854-1856.