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No math expertise necessary to get formula of 'Proof'

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- The 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Proof," currently at Okoboji Theatre, deals with the difficult-to-understand subject of mathematical theories. But we don't need to know much about math in order to appreciate this story of a genius whose daughter may have inherited his same talent with numbers.

Catherine is a troubled young woman, portrayed sensitively and often brilliantly by Stephens College student Stephanie Nieman. Catherine has put aside her studies to look after her father, Robert, a distinguished mathematician and University of Chicago professor, who in his 50s suffers from dementia. She cares for him because she loves him, though she has sacrificed some of her potential and much of her ambition in the day-to-day dullness of care-giving.

The story opens on Catherine's 25th birthday, a week after Robert's death. The phantom figure of Robert joins her in celebration, showing a cheerful human demeanor as he shares fatherly advice, urging her to put her life back together. Later, in flashbacks, we see Robert's confusion and lack of control during his final illness as he strives to think and work. Professional actor Rob Doyen is in splendid form as he projects these changes in his character's personality.

Catherine's sister, Claire, a confident New York career woman who helps the family financially, and Hal, a former pupil of Robert's, now a university teacher devoting his free time to study of 103 notebooks filled with Robert's work, make up the other members of the small cast. These roles are very well played by Stephens students Elizabeth Gjertson and Gabriel di Chiara. The young man Hal reveals his interest in and affection for Catherine as the action progresses.

Among Robert's notebooks in the attic of the house, Hal finds an extra one that Catherine claims as her own. Did Catherine know enough math to produce such outstanding original work? Neither Claire nor Hal can really believe that she did.

Besides winning honors on Broadway, David Auburn's play has been performed often across the USA and was made into a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow. On stage, Mary Louise Parker and Paltrow each starred at various times, receiving high praise. However, critics pointed out that the only weakness in Auburn's "Proof" lies in the fact that the astonishing mathematical theory in question is never revealed to the audience, implying that theater-goers wouldn't understand it anyway.

At Okoboji, direction by Lamby Hedge is right on the mark, aided by Liz Freese's pleasing set design, which shows an outdoor porch of a time-worn Chicago home.

Because viewing "Proof" makes for an unusual and intriguing experience, I can almost guarantee that many of opening night's OST patrons on the day after are still puzzling about this drama and its meaning. The second act is by far the better of the two, so hang in there if Act One starts out a bit slowly. The show continues through Sunday.