Jonathan Gregg, lecturer in math, gave the Tower Players’ cast of “Proof” each a sheet of paper with a rectangle and a triangle in the center of it about a month before the play’s opening night, next Wednesday in Markle Auditorium.
“Do math,” Gregg told the group.
It turned out about as well as you would expect from a bunch of humanities majors: “I had no idea what was going on,” said junior Judy Moreno, who plays leading lady Catherine. “I didn’t feel any spark of creative genius. It was, ‘Oh my gosh, which random math facts from my childhood can I draw up?’”
Audience members of Hillsdale College’s production of “Proof” next week will not need to know the justification for the parametrization of Pythagorean triples that Gregg went on to explain to the cast. Having an understanding of the creative process that goes into mathematics, however, may help people understand the themes of genius and insanity that are central to the play’s plot.
“Proof” by David Auburn won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2001. It centers on what 25-year-old Catherine will do now that her mathematics genius of a father, Robert (senior Nikolai Dignoti), has died after she took care of him for years as his mental health declined. Her New York City sophisticate sister Claire (junior Jessica MacFarlane) and Robert’s protégé, Hal (junior Dylan Strehle), contribute to Catherine’s self-evaluation of her own mental state.
“There are things Catherine is going through that you as college students are dealing with, from being smart, being quirky, from having family members who are ill, maybe dealing with some mental illness, anxiety, depression,” said Michael Beyer, “Proof” director and college lighting and production manager.
Moreno said for that reason, she felt connected to Catherine immediately, despite the complexity of her character and the elusive nature of the mathematical world in which she grew up.
“She feels like someone you know or someone you’ve been or someone you’re afraid to be at times,” Moreno said.
She said she also has found ways to associate with Catherine’s more analytical nature, as well, as Gregg helped her and her castmates discover the creativity that goes into mathematics.
“The majority of what we’re taught in school is not mathematics,” Beyer said. “It’s the result of mathematics. When you’re taught two plus two equals four, that’s not math; that’s fact. The mathematics was what it took to find that two plus two equals four. It’s equal parts creativity and science.”
These are the first major roles that Moreno and MacFarlane are taking, creating a broad range of experience amongst the four cast members. Dignoti’s performance is his senior project.
MacFarlane said the dialogue has especially been challenging, since Auburn purposefully used uneven speech in a new-realism approach that projects the themes of instability into the characters’ conversations.
“It’s not like Shakespeare where the ideas connect, and it’s in iambic pentameter,” MacFarlane said. “With this, it’s a lot of short sentences, and it’s meant to be awkward with awkward pauses. It’s a lot harder to memorize, because it’s not sequential.”
The play’s mathematical themes will also be visually present on stage. Donald Fox’s downtown Chicago street set will feature symmetry and parallel lines. Different shapes will make up window glasses, the porch table will be hexagonal, and flowers will spring from circular pots.
Those will help to fill space on the large stage, a challenge Beyer said he is facing with only four actors. A small cast, however, has created close-knit dynamic and is helpful for a short rehearsal time period — four-and-a-half weeks.
“Proof” plays at 8 p.m. from Nov. 15-18 with a 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 18, which will have a discussion led by the mathematics department following it. Before the Nov. 16 show, Gregg will give a lecture explaining some of the mathematical concepts discussed.
“The task of a mathematician is significantly more creative than you think,” Gregg said. “I want to give that experience of what it means to be a mathematician.”