Actor Terry Hamilton has gotten used to playing some pretty complex and larger-than-life characters.
He's played American traitor Benedict Arnold in "The General from America," famed physicist Niels Bohr in "Copenhagen" and disgraced former President Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" -- a role that earned the Deerfield resident a Jeff nomination.
"33 Variations"Location: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, (773) 327-5252 or timelinetheatre.com.
Showtimes: Preview performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24, Saturday, Aug. 25, and Wednesday, Aug. 29; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26. The play opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, and then runs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 21
Tickets: $22 for previews; $32-$42 during regular run
"I liked playing Nixon because he was from my time," Hamilton says, "and I enjoyed getting into the details of how he handled the Vietnam War -- it made him more human to me, which is what an actor does for the audience."
Now he is slated to play another famously complex man -- Ludwig Van Beethoven -- in TimeLine Theatre's production of "33 Variations."
The role required about four months of preparation. Hamilton read a few biographies, but tried to stay away from Hollywood portraits of the composer.
"I had no idea how much he suffered," Hamilton notes. "He was constantly ill and tormented -- not a happy man at all even though he was considered a genius of his time."
One of those torments was his deafness. The musician began to lose his hearing while in his twenties. As a way to explore Beethoven's deafness, the director, Nick Bowling, suggested Hamilton blast Beethoven's works in his ears from his iPod while rehearsing a scene to experience how the composer must have felt when trying to communicate with people.
"It was very difficult; I had to read people's lips to understand what they were saying, then I had to learn how to carry that into my performance," Hamilton says.
The variations mentioned in the title are based on Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations," in which he took a simple waltz by Anton Diabelli and wrote different variations of the piece for the piano. It was a work that was started in 1819 and finished around 1823.
Diabelli, a well-known publisher, sent his waltz to all the significant composers of that time, asking them to write a variation of it for an eventual collection. Beethoven initially refused, believing writing a variation would be beneath him. He later changed his mind and wrote 33 of them instead of just one.
The play, by Moises Kaufman, jumps between past and present as a modern-day scholar -- suffering through her own health issues -- tries to decipher why an ailing Beethoven would have devoted so much time to this project. A pianist plays the 33 variations throughout the performance.
The story is more than just a musical mystery, however.
"The story is about what it means to give up," Hamilton says, "how being so involved in the struggle of the creative process can actually release creativity."