David Auburn, AB’91, (left) talks with Court Theatre's artistic director Charles Newell about how UChicago provided the physical setting as well as the intellectual culture for Proof. (Photography by Robert Kozloff)

Proving ground

How Hyde Park’s idiosyncrasies enhanced an award-winning play.

David Auburn, AB’91, originally set his Tony Award–winning play Proof nowhere—or anywhere. “There was kind of a generic feeling to it when it was set in an unnamed place that I didn’t like.”

Auburn’s drama, about a brilliant mathematics professor suffering from mental illness and the caretaker daughter who shares his intellectual gift and psychological curse, needed geographical roots. Hyde Park hit home.

Beyond giving Proof a sense of place, the location added an idiosyncratic emotional atmosphere. In a conversation with Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell, who directed a spring production of Proof, Auburn recalled eccentric figures from his undergraduate days who were the subjects of rumors. “Usually the rumors had to do with them being these incredibly brilliant prodigies in their youth who had then slipped off the rails, and they were still sort of haunting the neighborhood.”

He realized Robert, the mathematician at the center of Proof, was one of them. “That was the person, the character that I was already writing, so it felt that the play really belonged in Hyde Park.”