Community theater offers concrete 'Proof'

Do you think math is boring?

If so, you're not alone. But the Lawrence Community Theatre has "Proof" that although math may not be simple, it's anything but boring.

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Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

From left, Jena Peterson, Brenton McCall and Karl Ramberg, who plays a crazy math professor named Robert, argue during a scene from the play "Proof." Peterson plays Robert's daughter, Catherine, and McCall plays a student of Robert's named Hal. They rehearsed last week at Lawrence Community Theatre, 1501 N.H.

The theater is staging the 2001 Tony Award-winning play by David Auburn with fantastic results.

The story reveals a glimpse into the lives of a brilliant but tragically ill mathematician, his two daughters and his former student searching for genius. Set in the family home in Chicago, the action begins after the death of mathematics virtuoso Robert. His depressed and confused daughter, Catherine, is awaiting the arrival of her sister, Claire.

Actress Mary Louise Parker, who received a Tony for her performance, originated the role of Catherine when the show opened Oct. 24, 2000, on Broadway. Actresses Anne Heche and Gwyneth Paltrow also have sunk their teeth into the complex character.

Things become complicated when Catherine's father's former protege, Hal, arrives to search through the hundreds of notebooks inscribed by Robert before his death. Catherine is sure there is nothing of value left from her eccentric father, but Hal is determined to find some hidden mathematical epiphany left behind by his mentor.

As romance develops between Catherine and Hal, and hostilities increase between Catherine and Claire, a mysterious notebook is discovered which contains a revolutionary mathematical proof. Authorship of the groundbreaking proof is immediately credited to the deceased mad genius Robert, but Catherine surprises everyone by admitting it is the work of her own genius.

The Lawrence Community Theatre began its run of the acclaimed play on Thursday and -- with its lineup of director, set and actors -- has found an equation for great entertainment.

Theater veteran Piet Reinier Knetsch directs the production, which features four local players. Jena Peterson takes on the roll of the confused Catherine. Early on during Thursday's performance, it seemed that Peterson's performance was too contrived. Blame it on opening-night jitters because by the second act Peterson had fully eased into the character and her surroundings. The young thespian really captured the loneliness and longing the daughter experiences throughout the play.

Lawrence native Jennifer Nelson, who works professionally in New York and Los Angeles, plays Catherine's prim and proper sister, Claire. She is home for the funeral, determined to bring sister Catherine back to New York to rest and seek help. The two women spend much of the play quarreling, but Nelson brings a sense of humanity to Claire throughout. Although she belittles her sister and meddles in her life, Nelson captures a humanity that endears Claire to the audience. She also maintains a restrained stage presence that is remarkable.

Kansas University student Brenton McCall plays the role of hard-partying math professor Hal. While digging through ramblings of a mad professor, he develops a longing for Catherine. McCall shines in this role. He is completely at ease on the stage, with the cast and with his surroundings. His subtle acting style is perfect for the character of Hal, who is torn between his affection for Catherine and his belief that she did not author the proof she claims she did.

The highlight performance of the show comes from Karl Ramberg, who plays Robert, the deceased genius. Most of Robert's story is told through flashbacks and supernatural conversations with his daughter, but Ramberg manages to shine during his time on stage. He make the audience laugh while at the same time feeling deeply upset at his loss of genius. In one of the play's most pivotal scenes, Ramberg shivers in the imaginary cold and tries to regain his former gift for mathematics.

Knetsch as director has assembled a cast that seems to effortlessly tell this tragic but heart-warming story. Scenic designer Jack Riegle also did a masterful job constructing the simple patio set. The cast worked extremely well in the cozy environment.

Whether you're a math prodigy or a novice with numbers, "Proof" is a play worth seeing. It's a charming story about madness and genius and the fine line between that so many of us walk.

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