At the Writers Theatre (Gillian)
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe –Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play “A Number” deals with human genetic cloning. The 65-minute one-acter, now at the Writers Theatre’s intimate Gillian Theatre, investigates cloning, not as a contentious moral, religious, or medical debate, but as a dramatic discussion into what cloning means in complex human terms.
“A Number” is performed by two actors, William Brown playing Salter, a father in late middle age, and Nate Burger, playing three of his sons. In the published edition of the script, the sons are called Bernard 1, Bernard 2, and Michael The sons are all the same age, roughly their mid 30’s. Salter’s original son died in an auto accident at the age of four. The first clone was created from the dead boy. One of the three adult sons is that basic clone and the other two are copies but neither the characters nor the audience knows for certain who came first. The play refers to a “mad scientist” as the person behind the clonings, but we aren’t told anything further about their origins.
Among the three sons, Bernard 2 reacts most angrily to the idea that he may not be who he thinks he is. His fury and bitterness focuses on the father he believes has failed him. His resentment leads to off stage violence resulting in the deaths of two of the sons.
The play strings together five related scenes. Salter and his sons meet, one-on-one, in a single set decorated with a few pieces of furniture signifying a modern living room. Outwardly, the dialogue in each scene is realistic, but the verbal exchanges are often clipped and fragmented (the spirit of Harold Pinter hovers over the writing style). Within the spare dialogue we hear that a large number of sons, maybe as many as 20 or more, have been sired by Salter. The main question in the minds of the sons is, Who am I? Am I a distinct and separate individual or a copy who shares his inner self with replicas?
“A Number” makes no attempt to locate the action in real time. The scenes seem to take place in roughly the present day, according to the clothing of the characters. But the roots of each son extend back decades. We hear some back story about their earlier lives, but the details are incomplete. We do learn that their mother’s death was initially blamed on the automobile accident, but we are finally told that she committed suicide by throwing herself under a train.
Robin Witt’s directing meets the special challenges of the script, with its shifting moods, elusive chronology, and elliptical language. There is almost no physical action, Witt and her two-member cast relying on the emotional and narrative shadings of the dialogue. Brown credibly conveys the complexity of Salter’s character, the man claiming he tried to be a caring father, but did make mistakes. But Salter mostly comes across as a callous man immersed in self justification, wheedling for approval from his three sons. Burger has the difficult assignment of shifting among the three cloned characters, persuasively shifting from son to son with small but telling adjustments in vocal tone and body language.
The Writers Theatre production fits perfectly in the anonymous living room set designed by Courtney O’Neill. The costumes designed by Linda Cho similarly have a commonplace modern look, with Brown wearing a business suit and Burger dressed in slacks and a sport shirt, his character change signified by the switch in jackets offstage between scenes. Brandon Wardell designed the atmospheric lighting and Thomas Dixon the sound plan.
Caryl Churchill has been writing one-of-a-kind plays for many decades. Many of these plays are not easy on the spectator, requiring close attention and a willingness to follow a unique theatrical and intellectual journey. For some viewers, “A Number” will be challenging and stimulating, forcing them to reconsider any thoughts they may have harbored on genetic cloning. Other spectators may find “A Number” too problematical, even boring, in its opaque style. I’d recommend that future attendees read the script before attending a performance to prepare themselves for the play’s special demands.
In a 1960 essay, Churchill wrote “Playwrights don’t give answers, they ask questions.” “A Number” probes in an intimate manner the question of who we are as individuals. How much is our sense of selfhood based on nature and how much on nurture? Is the play science fiction or a cautionary exploration of what may face the human race in the near future. The playwright offers no facile answers, but audiences who give her play their full concentration will leave the Writers Theatre with their minds churning.
The show gets a rating of
“A Number” runs through June 9 at the Writers Theatre (Gillian Theatre), 325 Tudor Court. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m., with additional Wednesday matinees on April 17 and 24 and May 8. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.
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