Craig Wallace has a confession to make.
“The only class I ever failed in high school–ever!—was algebra,” said the Helen Hayes Award-winning actor who, despite his incongruous ninth-grade academic defeat, plays a mathematical genius onstage in “Proof” at Olney Theatre Center. “I needed a little more time,” Wallace explained, noting that he went to summer school and ultimately aced the algebra exam. “Then I understood it completely—and I loved it!”
But that doesn’t mean the D.C.-based actor, a graduate of Howard University who got his start in Olney’s National Players troupe armed with an MFA from Pennsylvania State University, is about to trade his career as an actor known and loved for Shakespearean, traditional and contemporary roles for a job solving quadratic equations.
“I think a lot of math is formulaic,” he observed. “It’s about numbers and process; there’s not any wiggle room in the formula to get to the end result.”
And what Wallace and his fellow actors do, even in a mathematics-based production like “Proof,” is “all wiggle room. Math is based on absolutes,” he added. “And there’s nothing absolute about a play.”
Particularly this one. David Auburn’s 2000 drama about a family bound and torn by mathematics and madness won the Pulitzer Prize; it has been produced around the world and Rebecca Miller adapted it to a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Jake Gyllenhaal in 2005. The Olney version, in the 150-seat Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, boasts a cast of some of the area’s most celebrated actors: Wallace as Robert, a brilliant mathematician; Helen Hayes Award-winner Dawn Ursula as his daughter, caretaker and mathematical heir; Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Catherine’s sister Claire and Biko Eisen-Martin as Robert’s protégé. It depicts a family that’s loving, conflicted—and African American.
For Dawn Ursula, it is something that–without taking away from the playwright’s vision of the story–adds a certain sizzle to this production. “This will make the audience hum and vibrate,” she predicted. “It adds another experience that they didn’t know was coming–and that we as a cast didn’t even know we’d be bringing.”
As a youngster, Ursula was good at math; as a mother, she extolls the virtues of heathy STEM programs for her daughter and other kids. And even as an actor, she sees a special relationship between theater and the realm of numbers.
“When you take a sentence, a statement in a play, and if you emphasize a particular word—or not—you change the meaning of the sentence,” Ursula pointed out. “It’s the same with a math problem: If you tweak a particular number or sign or cosine or power, then you can change outcomes of what that math problem produces.”
What does Ursula, last seen at Round House Theatre in the Olney-Round House co-production of “Angels in America,” think about the “tweaking” of “Proof,” a story that, at its heart, is about a family’s relationships with each other and with the world?
“It enhances the play beyond what the playwright could ever have ever intended,” she said, noting that the success of the movie “Hidden Figures” this year has brought the image of African-American women who happen to be math geniuses into a particularly clear focus.
“That movie helps people who have been conditioned to accept that African Americans can’t fit these traditions, can’t be these types of people,” explained Ursula. “I know that there have always been African-American geniuses, mathematical and otherwise. But for those who might say, ‘Oh, they’re just doing non-traditional casting’—no-no-no-no-no! That’s not what this is.”
So, what exactly is it? “It is certainly not incidental to me,” said Timothy Douglas, the Helen Hayes Award-winning director of “Proof” who grew up in a segregated part of Long Island, New York. “It’s all personal and subjective, and I did not grow up with a model of mathematicians.
“Even when I was going through school, and was very good at math, and was told that I could be an engineer,” he added, “It wasn’t in my family; it wasn’t in my circle of friends. I didn’t know people who had college degrees.”
Because his work is so personal, Douglas explained, the play can’t help but reflect his perspective and that of many African Americans he knows. “We will sit up and say, ‘Whoa!’” he predicted, noting that as a Yale School of Drama alum whose work is in the relatively un-egalitarian world of theater, he is used to an audience that’s mostly white—and maintains that for any audience, a family of African-American math geniuses “will be a stunning visual.”
“It’s the nature of what we do,” he continued. “The reason why plays endure is because every time you see them, every time they’re produced, they’re produced through a new lens. New eyes and new people see new things, even though every time the lines are always the same.
“It’s why Shakespeare lasted 400 years.”
For Wallace, every play is a particular piece of artistry. “I think that the advantage we have is that Dawn and Aakhu are years-long friends and collaborators of mine, so it’s easy for them to be my daughters. And Biko was in ‘Three Sisters’ with me at Studio Theatre.
“Because we have that familiarity, it really adds to what you’ll see on stage.”
What he sees, however, is from his character’s view only. Wallace said he feels a responsibility to the truth of the play, not what he might inspire or provoke in another actor or in the audience. “My objective is the play, and I want to do the most compelling version of the play that I can do. And then I hand it to you, the audience, and you do with it what you want to.”
Similarly, Ursula seeks truth—and finds it in “Proof.” “This play, which is so perfect and so smart, asks every question and makes every statement,” she said. “It’s about truth, which is so much what math is about. Something is either is true or it isn’t: Math is about expressing that, about finding the truth. It’s completely fascinating.”
And funny, too. Despite its serious themes, Ursula said she’s amazed by the play’s sweet, comic passages. “I’ve always felt the comedy underneath,” she said. “These people aren’t just smart; they’re witty, they’re dry; they play off words, try to make their points.
“It’s so much like real life. Families have arguments and humor comes in to keep it from being abrasive, a real battle.
“They’re scoring points, winning by wit.”
For Douglas, that witty language and actorly banter is key to his director’s repertoire. “I’m often described as an actor’s director,” he said, noting that he started in acting (and had considerable success on stage and on television) before turning to the director’s role. “I love plays, I love language, but it’s clear very quickly that my focus is on the actors. I trust intuition, I pay close attention to their bodies and how their voices respond on a vibrational level. I love the nature of creativity, and I love that I get to interpret.”
Douglas, who is making his Olney directorial debut with “Proof” after a string of highly-acclaimed directing gigs at Arena Stage, the Folger, Round House Theatre and Woolly Mammoth, likens the process to swimming, “being very sensitive to the waves and the currents,” or to watching a child growing up: “It grows strong, it starts to talk, it starts to walk—and you have to protect it from hurting itself.”
His own growing up involves a math anecdote, naturally. A gifted student, Douglas was placed in an accelerated course of study in a rigorous high school to which he was diverted, a bus ride away from his neighborhood district. “They pushed me a year ahead, put me in pre-calculus,” he recalled. “I definitely hit the wall. I lost my mind: like, ‘What is this? What have you done with the math?’
“I crashed, I could barely add two and two, I lost my passion,” he said. “But it wasn’t about math, it was about the need to know—and clearly I didn’t need to know calculus!”
He laughs about it now, and understands that the part of him that merged math with an innate drive to succeed and excel as a young man is what he called upon as he shaped this production of “Proof” with his cast and crew.
“The need to know is at the center of this play,” he observed. “And there is no exact answer.”
“Proof” runs through June 18 at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. No matinee performance on May 31 or June 14. Talkbacks with cast and artistic staff follow select Saturday matinee performances. Tickets start at $50. Discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.