Stage hit `Proof' a welcome change

Everyman production restaged at Totem Pole


July 28, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Beginning Tuesday, audiences at Totem Pole Playhouse will see a very different Carl Schurr.

For the past two decades, almost every show at the summer playhouse in Pennsylvania's Caledonia State Park has begun with a precurtain speech delivered by Schurr, the Baltimore-based actor/director who has run Totem Pole since 1984. This month, he even bought a new white suit in which to perform his duties as official greeter.

"It's tradition at the Pole that Carl gets in his glad rags and comes down the aisle and says hello," explains Schurr, whose full title is producing artistic director. But when he comes out on stage in David Auburn's Proof, Schurr will be wearing far less dapper duds. For his role as a genius mathematician, Schurr will be clothed in what he describes as "kind of a Goodwill costume." It's a look that could also be called rumpled professorial drab, and this is the second time he has donned it.

That is because Totem Pole has essentially imported this production from Everyman Theatre, where the Pulitzer Prize-winning play set a box-office record in 2004. The director (Everyman artistic director Vincent M. Lancisi) and cast (Megan Anderson, Deborah Hazlett and Robert McClure, in addition to Schurr) are the same. The set, costumes and lighting designs are all that is new.

Past Totem Pole productions occasionally inspired national tours mounted by Schurr's predecessor, William H. Putch (late husband of actress Jean Stapleton), and more recently, there have been co-productions with Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. But Proof is the first time that Totem Pole has brought in a show that originated at another theater.

Schurr says that decision was made when Proof was still at Everyman. The production was such a hit, Everyman extended the run, and director Lancisi tried to move it immediately to another theater, but none could be found. So, then and there, the director and cast made a commitment to restage the show a year and a half later 70 miles away. "We just thought, we're all going to do it, and we'll rearrange our lives to do it," Schurr says.

The play to which they are so devoted is a poignant account of the relationship between Schurr's character, a former math professor, and his daughter (Anderson), who fears that, along with her father's genius, she may have inherited his mental instability.

Schurr acknowledges that the part is a "dramatic departure" from the comic roles and villains that Totem Pole audiences are accustomed to seeing him play. Indeed, even the villains sometimes meet resistance from theatergoers. He still recalls running into a patron at the supermarket after he had played the diabolical husband in Angel Street 14 years ago. Looking up from her grocery cart, the woman said she wished he would do more comedies, then she added, "Angel Street, the husband in that - I just hated him. Oh, that was you."

Still, in addition to the usual summer stock formula of musicals, farces and mysteries, Schurr feels it is important - for both the audience and the theater company - to include at least one challenging new play each season.

"In the early days of Totem Pole and similar summer theaters, the goal was to bring the best of recent Broadway to the woods here," he says. "But there's very little contemporary theater that comes from Broadway that is suitable for us as far as themes, language or technical difficulties. When a play such as Proof comes along, we have a responsibility to share it."

Totem Pole Playhouse is in Caledonia State Park, 9555 Golf Course Road, Fayetteville, Pa., 15 miles west of Gettysburg. Showtimes for "Proof" are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 2-14. Tickets are $23-$30. Call 888-805-7056.

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