Norm Sham was never big on math.
In high school, the Buffalo actor and director recalled in a recent phone interview, he got through math class by peering over the lowered shoulder of his best friend, who sat directly in front of him.
“It was my worst, worst absolute subject,” Sham said. “I just never could wrap my brain around it.”
So it doesn’t quite add up that Sham is directing a production of “Proof,” David Auburn’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning 2000 play about the intersection of mathematical genius and mental illness, that opens Friday in the Kavinoky Theatre.
But Sham, a comic and musical theater actor who is relatively new to directing, isn’t puzzling over prime numbers, differential equations or the finer points of integral calculus. Instead, he’s focusing on a subject he mastered during his years working on stage and behind the scenes as the Kavinoky’s stage manager: chemistry.
“Chemistry is the biggest thing for me, because I’ve stage-managed and I’ve been around it enough to know that it takes one pill to ruin the entire experience,” Sham said. “All it takes is one. And this play has none of that.”
What it has is a tight, four-person cast – headed by Peter Palmisano as a brilliant but disturbed mathematician and Jessica Wegrzyn as his no-less-brilliant daughter – that Sham said works seamlessly together. The Kavinoky production also stars Aleks Malejs as the sister of Wegrzyn’s character, Catherine, and Jonathan Shuey as her love interest.
Fortunately for those in the audience who share Sham’s math allergy, Auburn’s story is far less about numerical relationships than human ones. It explores the mysterious connection between brilliance and mental illness, as well as between a father and daughter who may be more alike than either of them want to admit. The play also borrows from more formulaic family dramas, in which adult siblings face off over an open wound from their shared childhood.
“I think there is some connection between extremely prodigious mathematical ability and craziness,’’ Auburn told the New York Times in 1990. “I don’t think that math drives people crazy, but those with edgy or slightly irrational personalities are drawn to it.”
“Like any decent work, it’s really a kind of human drama,” Sham said.
For Wegrzyn, being cast as Catherine – one of the more complex female characters to emerge from Broadway in the last 15 years – fulfills a longtime dream and marks a major accomplishment in her young career.
“In a single breath, she can be witty, smarter than anyone else in the room, completely vulnerable and just this incredible presence in the room that everyone has to deal with,” Wegrzyn said. “She can’t really help that. It’s nothing that she’s created. It’s just who she is, who she can’t help being, which is actually terrifying to her.”
Trying to live inside the head of this conflicted character also was a bit terrifying for Wegrzyn, who credited Auburn for creating a three-dimensional person who demands total commitment from any actor charged with bringing her to life.
“It’s not about playing a depressed character or a strong character. It’s about living every single moment,” she said. “This is truly a testament to being present in every moment and trusting the people I’m onstage with.”