CAMBRIDGE — In David Auburn’s “Proof,’’ a genius mathematician named Robert is dead but far from gone.
A pioneer in game theory and other fields, Robert remains a presence in the imagination, the memory, and the conscience of his 25-year-old daughter Catherine, materializing onstage at Central Square Theater to exhort her: “Don’t waste your talent, Catherine.’’ Robert’s own achievements, when he was younger than her, have set the bar dauntingly high for Catherine, but the daughter is also haunted by the tragedy her father’s life became as he was enveloped by severe mental illness.
Is her own sanity starting to disintegrate? As for that mathematical proof discovered in Robert’s desk, the one constituting a revolutionary breakthrough that could change everything: Did he write it, or did someone else?
Those two questions lend suspense to a staging of “Proof’’ at Nora Theatre Company that taps into the enduring strengths of Auburn’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play as both a bracing intellectual riddle and a family drama, helping the production overcome significant flaws that include a subpar performance in a crucial role.
This “Proof’’ does drive home the play’s core dilemma: Namely, that both father and daughter see mathematics as a way of understanding or at least making some sense of existence, embracing quantifiable certainties and the clarity numbers seem to offer, but both are flummoxed by human variables.
After being presented on Broadway in 2000 with Mary-Louise Parker in the role of Catherine, “Proof’’ was adapted into a film in 2005 that starred Gwyneth Paltrow as Catherine, along with Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Laudably, at a time when the talents, experiences, and stories of Asian-Americans remain chronically underrepresented on the American stage, the Nora has cast three of the four roles with Asian-American actors. Guiding them is director Michelle M. Aguillon, who is a first-generation Filipino-American.
Aguillon says in a program note that Nora artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner “came to me with the idea of casting the family in ‘Proof’ as Asian,’’ and that during rehearsals cast members shared their own “Asian points of view on family.’’ (For veteran actor Michael Tow, who plays Robert, this production represents the first time in his career that he has been in a play helmed by an Asian director, according to a Nora spokesman.)
The Nora’s production is hobbled by shortcomings in Lisa Nguyen’s performance as Catherine, some less damaging problems with Tow’s portrayal of Robert, and occasional hiccups in the rhythm of Aguillon’s staging. The action transpires in Chicago, on the back porch of the family home, whose walls are abloom with mathematical formulas in the simple but effective set design by Janie E. Howland.
Nguyen simply seems overmatched by the heavy demands of her role. We need to feel the full force of Catherine’s anguish, but in Nguyen’s tentative and unpersuasive performance, Catherine comes across as merely petulant for the most part, whether she is dealing with her father, her older sister Claire (Cheryl Daro), or a graduate student, Hal (Avery Bargar), with whom Catherine becomes romantically involved. (Near the end of opening night, Nguyen began to seem more assured, suggesting the possibility her command of the role will increase as the run goes on.)
Tow is stiff in the early going, as if uncertain which notes to emphasize while tackling an admittedly elusive and enigmatic character. The actor is at his strongest when it counts, however, movingly conveying Robert’s devastation when the truth about the father’s condition is revealed in Act 2.
The most consistently stellar work in this “Proof’’ comes from Daro and Bargar. Daro turns in a beautifully modulated performance as Claire, who is initially officious but ultimately sympathetic; the older sister may seem to lead a privileged life, but the actress lets us see the burdens that Claire grapples with. As for Bargar, he radiates a kind of relaxed, grounded likability from the moment Hal shows up, intent on examining the more than 100 notebooks that Robert left behind.
In a field known for its young prodigies, Hal feels old and insecure at 28. It’s one of several shrewd touches by playwright Auburn that illustrate the intensely cerebral environment his high-achieving characters are competing in, such as a conversation between Catherine and Claire about hair conditioner that quickly and amusingly detours onto the terrain of organic chemistry.
But the most resonant exchange in “Proof’’ occurs early in the play, when Catherine laments to her father that “I haven’t done anything good. . . . By the time you were my age, you were famous,’’ and he pointedly replies, in words she should take to heart: “By the time I was your age, I had done my best work.’’
Play by David Auburn. Directed by Michelle M. Aguillon. Presented by Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Feb. 18. Tickets from $25, 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.