When Michael Beyer first saw “Proof,” he was working as an usher at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre during grad school in 2002. Months before, the play had received three Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“I thought it was refreshing. As far as new theater went it was energetically written,” Beyer said.
And ever since he began teaching in 2005, he has taught the play to his students. Now, he gets to put it on the Markel Auditorium stage.
The Tower Players will perform “Proof” at 8 p.m. from Wednesday through Saturday with an additional Saturday matinee performance at 2 p.m.
The play, which uses only four characters, centers on Catherine, played by junior Judy Moreno, and her late father Robert, played by senior Nikolai Dignoti, and how genius has affected their family. Despite having revolutionized the field of mathematics by the age of 23, Robert lost his mind in his later years. Catherine, delaying her own studies in college, has had to stay at home and care for him.
The scenes flash back in time to when Robert was still alive, complementing the chronological narrative in which Catherine’s sister Claire, played by junior Jessica MacFarlane, comes to suburban Chicago from New York to deal with the death of her father. Meanwhile, Hal, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, played by junior Dylan Strehle, leafs through piles of notebooks searching for hints of mathematical genius.
When he does find a notebook that contains a savant-level mathematical proof, the plot pulses dramatically toward its bittersweet conclusion.
Everything about the play is tight and controlled: careful scene progressions, smooth emotional waves, and a small cast. The four actors, who underwent a grueling four-and-a-half week rehearsal process, look like a small family as Beyer, who serves as both director and lighting designer of the production, gives them pre-show notes around the small table on the stage.
“With such a small cast, consistently we have reworked stuff and changed blocking to see how it feels. I think we made a better product in the end,” Strehle said.
Although the play became famous for its subject matter, Beyer thinks that deeper themes lie behind the mathematical intrigue.
“The easy answer is to say ‘Oh, it’s about math and insanity and genius,’” he said. “But more so it is about how people who care about each other and are faced with hard decisions deal with it. Family responsibility. Putting things on hold because you have to.”
And the focus of that familial responsibility is Robert, Dignoti’s role, which serves as his senior project for the theater major. Dignoti, already an accomplished actor, dove deeper into source material and read extensively about John Nash, the mathematician who revolutionized game theory and who is the focus of the film “A Beautiful Mind.”
“Nash was very demented. He had schizophrenia, I believe. He was very young at the time. He had this moment where he thought he could do math again but was checked by his family and was actually just writing gibberish,” Dignoti said.
This intense research into his character helped Dignoti play the role of Robert realistically. His monologue at the open of the second act in which he reflects on life at the University of Chicago pulls attention toward Robert’s interior world and later, when he becomes unwell, Dignoti, bent and shivering in the winter cold, fills notebooks full of nonsensical proofs. Dignoti’s ability to open up his character to the audience and then sever all connection is masterful.
Catherine, though, is the principal character of the play. After she put her life on hold for five years, the death of her father allows her to see new horizons.
“She is complex and layered,” Moreno said. “She expresses herself passionately whether it is in her sadness or her anger or even her joy. It is very cathartic for me to be able to express that, because I don’t express a lot.”
Moreno displays Catherine’s interior conflict with mood shifts that react against force: her sister’s pleas to move to New York, Hal’s attempts to insert himself into her family, her father’s insistence that she not waste her talent for mathematics. Moreno explores static and kinetic motion, adding an unwritten element that opens up the play. Catherine expresses that she wants desperately to stay in her home and Moreno roots herself to her chair on the porch for much of the first act.
Beyer also used the music of feminist singer Ani DeFranco, who struggles openly against authority, and other female singers of the 2000s between scenes to set a defiant tone and to immerse the audience in the aesthetic of the millennial turn.
Hal and Claire push the plot and foil Catherine. Strehle plays Hal with the quirky mannerisms and chipped shoulder of a mathematics Ph.D. past his prime. His clear acting helps ground the play and allows Catherine’s tensions to shine through all the more. MacFarlane squares her jaw and plays the hard-partying yet professional Claire with the brutality and dismissiveness that only an older sister could wield.
“Proof” presents life as a binary code of action. Robert is crazy, or he is not. Catherine is a genius, or she is not. She will leave the house in the Chicago suburbs, or she will not. The play is either about a mathematical proof, or the title suggests that the characters are looking for proof: of identity, of stability, of love. This week, the Tower Players, through a masterfully written play, offer nothing less than a reality that scalds the heart awake.