Math and madness tangle on stage

Mathematics abhors a hot mess.
Storytellers, on the other hand…
David Auburn’s “Proof,” which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for drama, focuses on father and daughter mathematicians and captures both the mess and the abhorrence for it. The black-box theater group Company Be will bring it to life next week at the Vermont Coffee Company Playhouse in Middlebury.
To prep the cast and crew, director Alex Nicosia passed out a book and movie list, which included “A Beautiful Mind,” the biography of the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash. 
He also invited Middlebury Union High School math teacher Kerianne Severy to attend early rehearsals. Severy studied math at the University of Maine and was a “huge help,” he said, talking to the cast about what it was like to study math at that level.
Nicosia was quick to point out, however, that at its heart the play is about human relationships.
“Yes, this is a story about mathematicians, but I think we have to look at these four characters as a family first, grappling with major life events,” Nicosia told the Independent. “That’s where the story lies. After that, the math can come out.”
The story centers around Catherine, who struggles with both the mathematical gifts and the mental illness she inherited from her father, Robert. Her sister, Clair, finding it impossible to help Catherine from a different time zone, is forced to consider some difficult options. When Robert’s ex-student Hal makes an important discovery among Robert’s papers, the meaning of the play’s title becomes something much more than mathematical.
“Catherine is a rollercoaster of a roll,” Nicosia said. “It’s a beast of a part, so you really have to get down to the grit of betrayal and devastation.”
Nicosia cast for the role Sophie Lefkoe, who was a part of Addison Repertory Theater at Middlebury Union High School and graduated from MUHS on Saturday.
“As a relatively young actor I was really excited to be involved in a show with such a powerful message,” Lefkoe said. “Catherine is a role unlike any other part I’ve played and it’s been so exciting to take on that challenge. I love that she is determined, keenly aware and fiercely intelligent, but I hate how stubborn she is (perhaps because the two of us are alike in that respect).”
THE PLAY CENTERS on father and daughter mathematicians, Robert and Catherine, who are played by Sophie Lefkoe and Kevin Commins.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
For the role of Claire, Nicosia cast local actress Erica Fergiuele, who has brought her own sibling history to bear on her character.
“On the first day of rehearsal, Alex asked us to name our greatest joy and our greatest fear,” she said. “My greatest fear is that my brother and I will never be close. It has certainly not been lost on me that my character has similar fears about her relationship with Catherine.”
Exploring that relationship has been enlightening, she said.
“It began to parallel my own sibling relationship, my own struggles for dominance, for affection, for understanding. It reminded me that there is no singular definition of what it means to be a sibling.”
Asa Wagner (Hal) and Kevin Commins (Robert) round out the cast.
“Proof” is right in the sweet spot for Company Be, an offshoot of Middlebury Community Players formed last year to stage smaller plays that the bigger company wouldn’t be able to do. Company Be plays may demand more from the audience, cover controversial topics or are new and don’t have a reputation that would attract big audiences, company founder Commins told the Independent last summer.
ERICA FERGIUELE PLAYS Catherine’s sister, Claire.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, “Proof” won the 2001 Drama Desk Award for Best New Play and three Tony Awards, including Best Play.
Fergiuele said she hopes audiences can “find a brief respite from life’s uncertainties in this story — that maybe, just for an instant, our greatest fears turn into something else: a sense of wonder at the simultaneous chaos and elegance present in our universe.”
Show dates are Thursday-Saturday, June 21–23, 8 p.m., and Sunday, June 24, 2 p.m., at the Vermont Coffee Company Playhouse off Exchange Street. Tickets are $10 cash or check at the door.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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