David Auburn's 2001 drama Proof isn't a torpid Pulitzer winner. Though it did win that prize along with the Kesselring and Tony awards, Proof is suspenseful from start to finish and has often been compared to a detective novel.

Filled with mathematics, plot twists, character revelations, and a conversation with a person who doesn't exist (anymore), Proof might also remind some audience members of the Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind. But the play actually has a fresher, more exciting way of unfolding the mysteries that lie within the plot. So it's no surprise New Ground Theatre chose the unique and thrilling drama to open the winter theatre season this weekend at Rivermont Collegiate.

New Ground director and founder Chris Jansen has recently staged other contemporary Pulitzer winners in the Quad Cities, including Dinner with Friends and Spinning into Butter. So, naturally, when she heard Proof had won both a Tony and a Pulitzer, her interest was piqued.

"I began reading it, and I couldn't put it down," she said. "I knew it was a play that needed to be done."

Actually staging Proof proved to be the biggest challenge, with a set design that called for a very realistic house and porch to match the realistic script. Jansen enlisted the help of her former classmate, Kim Abey, who has worked as master scenic artist at Yale. After driving up from New Mexico, Abey helped Jansen construct the entire set in only 10 days.

And interest in the play appears to be strong. At least a week before the show opened, people had reserved tickets for Proof - which Jansen says is unusual. She thinks more people, especially college students, have heard of the Pulitzer-winning play and are looking forward to seeing it.

"One of the things that makes Proof different from other work we've done is its focus on younger characters," Jansen said. (Most of the characters are in their 20s.) "As far as New Ground goes, one of our missions is to draw a younger audience. ... This play doesn't set out to please any one specific age group - it really can be enjoyed by anyone."

Proof is the story of Catherine, a 25-year-old whose brilliant (but supposedly insane) mathematician father, Robert, has passed away, leaving her with an empty house and an empty life. Catherine must also deal with her father's former student, Hal, who hopes to discover something brilliant in Robert's old notebooks; and her sister, Claire, who tries to move Catherine out of the house and to New York. When Catherine reveals to the two a groundbreaking mathematic proof in one of the notebooks, she is faced with questions: Is she insane too? Will she ever be as brilliant as her father was?

Proof leaves questions not only for its characters, but for audiences as well. Are most geniuses insane, because they're thinking on a higher level? Who defines madness, or brilliance? The script also touches on the subjects of work, happiness, family obligation, relationships, fulfillment, and the importance of knowledge.

At the heart of the script, according to Jansen, is the play on words: "The proof. The fact that Hal doesn't believe Catherine at first. The play's about giving someone a second chance, and the disappointments that accompany the fact someone doesn't believe you or believe in you. For a relationship to continue, someone has to believe in you."

And audiences have been believing in New Ground Theatre. Jansen said she's been pleasantly surprised with so many positive responses to the contemporary scripts New Ground performs. "No one has complained. Maybe people underestimate the Midwest. People are interested in what we're doing."

Proof will be performed at Rivermont Collegiate on November 29 and 30 and December 5, 6, and 7 at 7:30 p.m. Matinees will be held at 2 p.m. on December 1, 7, and 8. (The November 29 performance will include a reception after the show.) Adult tickets are $12. For tickets or more information, call 326-7529.

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