Sharma’s Proof Aims to Promote Campus Discussion of Mental Illness

Aviva Blonder, Staff Writer

Last night marked Oberlin’s first showing of David Auburn’s Proof in a series of five showings directed by senior Maya Sharma. The play, which she describes as “philosophically ripe” and full of “awesome, dynamic female roles” will run through Oct. 16 in the Little Theater.

According to Sharma, mental illness takes center stage in Proof. “[The play] deals with questions we all ask ourselves — how can I be functional, but feel dysfunctional?” said Sharma. “I think that Oberlin does a lot well, but one place that I think Oberlin has acknowledged that they need to really grow is in their addressing of mental illness on campus.”

The play, which has a small cast of four actors, tells the story of a young woman named Catherine coping with the death of her father, a mentally unstable but brilliant mathematician, as she questions how much of his legacy — both good and bad — she inherited. In a subplot, Catherine deals with her estranged sister, Claire, and pursues a possible romance with her father’s former student, Hal.

The process of creating Proof began with a private reading in which Sharma read 28 plays, Proof being the last.
“Over the summer, I read the play over and over again. I analyzed it really stringently and broke it down and figured out what happens at every moment, what happens on the surface and what happens underneath it, all that kind of prep work,” she said. When she returned, Sharma contacted College sophomore Adina Katz to be the stage manager.

“Because I had such competent people working on [the play], there haven’t been a terrible amount of difficult road blocks,” said Sharma. The play’s cast includes veteran Theater majors as well as some fresh faces from across disciplines.

“Working with everybody was really fun; I think half the fun of putting on a show is rehearsing,” said Ruby Dienstag, the College senior and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies

major who plays Catherine. The cast rehearsed five days a week after the roles were set and will continue rehearsing though the shows. “The process … is [still] going on,” said Sharma, “That doesn’t really end. Even when the shows go up, it’s still … a collaboration.”

Those involved with the show emphasized that Oberlin could benefit from creating a safer space to share narratives of mental health as opposed to turning mental illness into a shameful, embarrassing or ugly fact.

“In the preparation for the show, [the topic of ] mental illness was very present,” said Katz. “The rehearsal process has been surrounded by [the topic of ] mental illness and thinking about the realities of … what it’s like to live with mental illness and to live with someone who has a mental illness.”

Additionally, strong female leads take center stage in Proof. “I love that it’s centered on two … strong female characters, [because] you don’t get that a lot, especially in the plays I was reading in high school,” said Dienstag. “[The play] also portrays mental health in a really cool way. … This person is really intelligent and put together and then sort of not, and that’s what I like about that. It really focuses on the complexities of mental health and makes it less abject — makes it more real, more relatable.”

With a title like Proof and the math-themed advertisements around campus, the play is “about math, but not really about math,” Sharma said, though there are quite a few math jokes and nods to the field dispersed throughout the script. Sharma even learned a bit about math in the process.

“More than anything else, I’ve been looking into how … a proof or formulas can supplement art or can double as compelling visual statements,” said Sharma, “Not everyone who’s going to see the show is going to understand. … But you can see them … incorporated into the set and also around campus.” She sees the play as a bridge between math and art, using the aesthetic appeal of hastily scribbled work on math problems to create a hectic yet purposeful atmosphere.

Proof doesn’t address mental illness prescriptively, nor does it present a solution; it shares the complexity of mental illness.

“The only ‘solution’ [Proof] offers is not a solution at all, really; it’s just the idea of sharing our discomfort and sharing our insecurity and instability with others,” Sharma said. “We can at least start to feel like we’re not so gross and ugly for having things that are wrong with us.”