Junior Judy Moreno and
senior Nikolai Dignoti rehearse for Tower Players’ pro­duction of “Proof.”
Elena Creed | Courtesy

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.