Pulitzer winning Proof at HLS


Lawyers often deal with questions of proof: they debate evidence in court, do meticulous research to support their claims, and rebut arguments from opponents. Scientists and mathematicians must likewise struggle with the question of when to accept something as fact and when to challenge it. In David Auburn’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Proof, directed by Professor Bruce Hay and beginning its run this weekend at HLS, Catherine, a young woman, drops out of school to care for her brilliant father, a famed mathematician suffering from schizophrenia. Upon his death, a stunning mathematical proof is discovered in his office. Catherine, a noted mathematician in her own right, takes credit for the proof only to find disbelief among family and friends.

“I chose the play because it brings into sharp relief the problems of moral and factual ambiguity, which we as lawyers have to deal with everywhere,” says Hay. “The moral ambiguity in the play concerns the nature of our responsibilities toward one another: should you essentially sacrifice your own life to care for an ailing parent? what should you do when you think a loved one is mentally ill but resists treatment? when should you “take someone’s word for it” even if you don’t believe the person?”

Although the play has nothing to do with lawyers, Hay believes it will still resonate with law students. “[I]t forces us to think about something of profound importance to lawyers — the pervasive, irreducible moral and factual uncertainty of the world we live in,” says Hay. “I hope more generally to get students to make the connection between narrowly “legal” conflicts and the kind of moral conflicts that occur every day in society.”

Though no legal issues are raised, the play can be viewed as putting forth two “trials” that leave it to the audience to determine the verdict. “[O]ne is whether the sisters properly cared for their father,” says Hay, “the other is who wrote the brilliant mathematical proof. The way those conflicts are resolved (or not resolved) may be quite instructive for people, such as lawyers, whose business is conflict resolution.”

Taylor Dasher, who plays a former grad student of the mathematician father (and potential love interest of Catherine) also believes law students will find many connections between the play and the law. “It’s great to have theatrical productions anywhere, but it’s especially cool at a place as analytical as a law school,” says Dasher. “The play should resonate with law students since I think it has themes that are of universal interest such as trust and sanity. Also, the issue of proof in the play should have unique appeal for law students.”

Sarah Bolling, who plays Catherine’s older sister, agrees, noting that the appeal extends not just to law students and mathematicians, but beyond. “I like the show because it deals with complicated personal relationships and the fundamental importance of trust,” says Bolling. “I think that these are issues that resonate with everyone, law students included.”

Though the script resolves many of the ambiguities by the end, Hay believes that leaving some doubt in the mind of the audience will help emphasize the themes contained in the play. “The script sort of pushes you toward a neat ending where all the doubts about the characters’ actions and motivations are resolved,” notes Hay. “I’m resisting that pressure, though of course I’m following the script to the letter. But I’m trying to get the actors to convey a subtext of doubt and ambiguity that the audience will leave with.”

Hay, who directed a production of the Crucible at HLS last spring, is directing Proof in the hope of providing an artistic complement to the Dean’s Forums and similar presentations at HLS in which pressing legal, moral and political issues are examined.

The cast is enthusiastic about being part of the production and encourages law students to come and take a look. “Live theater is engaging and makes for a great break from reading cases,” says Dasher.

“Students should come see the play because theater is good for you,” urges Bolling, “and it’s on campus… it doesn’t get much easier than that.