For those of us who have a less than impressive background in mathematics, Aurora Theater Company’s world premier of Ira Hauptman’s “Partition” may seem a bizarre selection — perhaps even off-putting. Wrong. Very wrong indeed. This is one terrific theater evening. Despite the odd title (it’s a mathematical concept) and a plot based on the true story of a couple of early 20th century mathematical geniuses, it’s a play which grabs you from the beginning and takes you through an often funny, but moving and deeply human experience.
Rahul Gupta plays Ramanujan, a largely self-taught clerk in India who, in 1913, wrote letters full of his mathematical theorems to three famous British mathematicians. Two threw the letters away unopened. The third, Cambridge professor G. H. Hardy (here played by a marvelously constrained David Arrow), concluded that the results “must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have had the imagination to invent them.”
While it may not be startling that Aurora has cast a group of highly talented actors, it seems little less than miraculous that they were able to locate an actor as gifted as Gupta, who is of Indian heritage to boot. His portrayal of the naive mathematical genius, Ramanujan, is so warm and so complete that one longs to see him in another role to find out if what he has created here is indeed nothing but acting.
Through Hardy’s intervention Ramanujan was brought to Cambridge, a world so alien that it might as well have been Mars. What Hardy could not have expected was the fact that — at least in this play — in addition to extraordinary differences in cultural behaviors, the two men embodied extremes in basic thought processes. The intensely reserved and totally left-brained Hardy’s attempts to corral Ramanujan’s intuitive approaches to behavior, as well as to mathematics, are at once both amusing and doomed. Eventually those efforts lead to a rupture between the two men from which they both suffer great pain.
The relationship between these two men, who could not possibly have been more different, is mitigated by the presence of a professor of humanities, Billington, superbly embodied by award-winning actor Chris Ayles. It is Billington who comprehends the human cost in Ramanujan’s eagerness to please Hardy, as well as the danger to the foreigner’s health in his obsession with work. Billington sums up the relationship when he says to Hardy: “You’re raising a child.”
Perhaps an even greater leavening force in the initial parts of the play are the appearances of the Indian goddess, Namagiri. She, of course, is seen only by Ramanujan, in his prayers or dreams. Played by the lovely young Rachel Rajput, Namagiri is amusingly maternal in her relationship with Ramanujan. There are delightful scenes between them in which she scolds him for neglecting his health, cooks dinner and shows him how to fold his blankets. As the play darkens, she tries to save him from the obsessive work she says is killing him, but finally chooses to leave.
Another supernatural force at work is the malicious ghost of the 17th century French mathematician, Fermat, (Julian Lopez-Morillas), best remembered for his “last theorem.” After a lifetime of perfectly proven theorems, Fermat has tormented generations of mathematicians by leaving one unfinished with a marginal note that he had a “perfectly charming” proof of the theorem — only there wasn’t enough room to write it down. In the play, he first announces that the whole thing was a scam, and later claims that he’s just forgotten the answer.
It is the question of Fermat’s theorem that becomes Ramanujan’s last obsession. He is fascinated with the problem and despite the anguish and objections of Billington, of his goddess, even of Hardy, he works. Knowing the potential cost to himself, he works.
As the audience left, one woman remarked: “I think every professor at Berkeley ought to be required to come here. I’m going to bring my husband if I have to drag him in chains.”