Centre math professor typecast in student-directed production of “Proof”
John Wilson, the H.W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of Mathematics at Centre College, has had a long and productive career teaching the x of calculus, the y of abstract algebra and the z of complex variables.
Open to a new challenge, he accepted the invitation of Centre student director Sean Fannin ’17 to play the role of Robert, a University of Chicago math professor, in David Auburn’s award-winning drama “Proof,” honored with both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.
The production is one of many events scheduled for the 2016 Family Weekend, Sept. 23-24.
Casual observers might say that Wilson is a shoe-in to play a math professor. In reality, though, there may not be much typecasting going on.
Robert’s dialogue is sprinkled with profanity, and he is described as a brilliant but troubled mathematician. While surely Wilson’s mother would have described him as brilliant, no one would ever say he is troubled. Wilson’s known far and wide as mild mannered, polite and kind to a fault.
In fact, Wilson readily admits that he has some concern about reactions of friends to the salty language, and he hopes his colleagues and students appreciate that he’s just playing a role. Aware that this is out of his control, he’s focusing most on learning his lines and understanding theatrical challenges like blocking, not to mention simply enjoying the moment.
“One of the best aspects of this entire experience has been to once again realize the joy and excitement of doing something completely different,” Wilson says. “Sure, it is a little scary, and I have no idea if I will be successful or not, but the growth that one undergoes by accepting new challenges is worth all the butterflies that chase away self-doubt.”
Wilson attributes this attitude to his own undergraduate liberal arts education at the University of the South, where his Sewanee professors fostered his broad interests and appreciation for lifelong learning.
Over the last three decades as a Centre faculty member—Wilson arrived in 1985—he has sought to instill the same qualities in his students. He appreciates every opportunity to work collaboratively with students outside of the classroom, whether it’s for math conferences, as faculty liaison for the Centre tennis team or in this production of “Proof.”
A masterfully crafted drama, the four characters in “Proof” are mathematical genius Robert; his two daughters, Claire and Catherine; and Hal, one of Robert’s students. Much of the play’s focus is on Catherine, who, like her father, struggles between madness and genius.
In addition to Wilson in the role of Robert, the all-Kentucky cast includes Sara Thesing ’18 (Berea) as Catherine, Rachel Bischoff ’18 (Prospect) as Claire and Brennen Amonett ’19 (Bowling Green) as Hal. Fannin, the director, is a senior from Independence. Jonathan Hunt ’18 of Springfield, Ohio, is the stage manager, and he is assisted by Jessa DeLuca ’19 of Lexington, Ky.
“I am extremely impressed with the talent and dedication of these students,” Wilson adds. “They have been so kind and patient with me throughout the entire process. I must say that I have developed as close a relationship with these students as I have with many of my math majors over the years.”
The title’s double entendre refers not only to a prime number proof discovered in Robert’s office after his death but also the challenge Catherine has to prove its authorship.
Add in a romantic entanglement and the fact that the play involves flashbacks and flash forwards, not to mention that some of it takes place in Catherine’s imagination, and you can understand why Auburn’s play has won Broadway acclaim. It also became a 2005 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis and Jake Gyllenhaal.
In addition to performances during the Centre College Family Weekend, Sept. 23-24, the complete production schedule includes shows Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 5 p.m. in Weisiger Theater in the Norton Center for the Arts.
by Michael Strysick
September 19, 2016