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Things aren’t adding up well for Catherine, the lank-haired, studiously blank-faced young woman sitting on the run-down back porch of that Chicago row house, catching up with her math-genius father and drinking cheap champagne from the bottle. She’s depressed: “I’ve lost a few days,” she confesses, to a darkness that keeps her in bed past noon. The moodiness has more than a little to do with the fact that she’s just turned 25, by which age her dad—whose number-crunching gift she seems to have inherited—was feeling the first stirrings of what would become a full-blown, career-ending psychosis. So the fact that she’s worrying aloud to the old man that he might have passed down the insanity, too, is more than a little significant—especially because he’s been dead for a week.

David Auburn is hardly the first writer to recognize that the bright muse often throws a dark shadow, but in his sharply written, solidly built drama Proof, he explores the intersections of genius and madness with a sureness and subtlety not many others have mustered. And in Arena Stage’s warm, well-modulated production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning script, director Wendy C. Goldberg and a splendid cast bring an uncommon grace to Auburn’s portrait of a beautiful mind in danger of breaking down.

Keira Naughton, this staging’s rock-solid core, negotiates the challenges of a complex character without once stepping wrong,

creating a Catherine at once vulnerable and irascible, exhausted and resilient, iron-willed and on the verge of collapse. She makes it painfully clear that it’s not just the character’s self-doubt weighing her down: The no-nonsense Manhattanite sister who’s flown home for the funeral also suspects that Catherine’s ready to crack, and the goofy-handsome mathematician who’s been going through her dad’s papers harbors a few reservations of his own. Watching Naughton register and respond to their assessments is like watching a wary, weary animal whose spirit hasn’t quite been broken—but might be any minute now.

So it’s marvelous when Naughton lets us see a glimmer of what must have been the old Catherine—the lighter-hearted person who hasn’t entirely been lost behind that hard protective shell. This other, better Catherine emerges after that researcher demonstrates, with considerably charming awkwardness, that he’s as interested in the late professor’s daughter as in the notebooks he’s been going through, and she brings with her the very thing he’s been hoping to find: a groundbreaking new mathematical proof of astonishing complexity, evidence that the dead man’s last lucid period culminated in one final explosion of genius.

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Or is it? The proof’s authorship quickly comes into question, and the new doubts that arise send Catherine bolting back into that familiar defensive crouch—damaged this time perhaps beyond recovery. Whether she’ll be able to summon the will to fight her way back is the question the balance of the play will consider—the danger, it slowly becomes obvious, is that Catherine might decide it’s easier simply to surrender to everyone’s worst expectations, to let others manage her life the way she managed her dad’s for something like a decade—and it’s to Auburn’s credit that the outcome remains very much in doubt until the last few minutes.

Credit Goldberg, too, for pacing and shaping things just about perfectly; she gives the play and Catherine’s pain plenty of breathing room, letting events unfold at an unhurried tempo but never losing the overall sense of urgency. When revelations come, they come crisply, with a little jolt designed to help you locate the edge of your seat, but there’s nothing showy—just an efficient sound cue, perhaps, or a pointed arrangement of players on that back porch.

And despite all Naughton’s considerable craft, she’d be marooned on the Kreeger stage without the terrific performances that surround her. Susan Lynskey is tart and funny as that hectoring sister, but she takes care to humanize her, too—thoroughly enough to inspire sympathy from anyone who’s ever had to step in and run a family show while others indulge in a breakdown. Michael Rudko finds the perfect mix of frustration, resignation, and irony for his damaged professor; he’s warmly paternal in the early going, funny and self-deprecating in a flashback to a period of remission, and devastatingly self-aware in a scene detailing the completeness of his psychosis—a sequence that might seem obvious or even overwrought but for the quiet, sad look of understanding that steals across his face. And Barnaby Carpenter makes that eager young academic winning in a gawky, Tom Hanks-ian way; even when he’s admitting to a weakness or stammering his way through a moment of divided loyalties, he’s hard not to root for. With Naughton, they’re four factors in an especially elegant expression—of a Proof that turns out to be substantially warmer than most mathematical exercises.

There could be more warmth in The Grapes of Wrath; for all the familial glue that binds the hard-pressed Joad clan as they struggle and suffer their way from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the disappointments of California, there’s a distanced quality to the sorrows that play out on the stage at Ford’s Theatre. Patience, certainly, is the signal quality of John Steinbeck’s dirt-poor, dirt-honest clan, but David Cromer’s production asks rather too much patience of the audience, too; it might as well be an opera, for all the immediacy it offers.

It sure plays out with an opera’s epic, glacial sweep; that damn truck is forever circling the open expanse of David Swayze’s set, burdened with a family’s undashable hopes and headed for yet another disaster. Frank Galati’s respectful adaptation of the novel has the relentless, grinding quality of an O’Neill play; it never grabs you by the throat, but it sure as hell will wear you down. You break, eventually, from the accumulated weight of its griefs.

There are fine, unassuming performances among the vast ensemble: Annabel Armour’s desiccated but indestructible Ma Joad, Stephen Patrick Martin’s disillusioned fellow traveler, and especially Jeffrey Hutchinson’s questioning humanist of a former preacher. Rusty Clauss is both amusing and heartbreaking as the doomed Granma Joad, and Jim Zidar seems particularly well cast as Pa.

But there’s a self-consciously noble, dutiful quality to the storytelling, and an enervating sameness sets in well before intermission. There’s no more momentum after the break; events follow, deaths and beatings and abandonments and floods, one harsh reality emerging after another until Cromer caps things with one shattering final stage picture—a kind of prairie-lonesome pietà that distills all the desperation and resilience of Steinbeck’s story into one throat-catching moment—that almost makes all the plodding worth the trip.

Only almost, though. Suffering is what Steinbeck enshrines in The Grapes of Wrath, and stoicism, to be sure, is the quality he celebrates so grimly in its heroes. But neither should be required of those who’d partake of their story. CP