“A Number” Asks Provocative Questions @ Writers Theatre

3 stars out of 4

British playwright Caryl Churchill wrote A Number in 2002, when the technology of cloning was in its infancy. In late 2017, scientists were able to clone primates and announce with certainty that the technology could be applied to humans. In a taut 65 minutes, Churchill’s play offers a dark vision of what might happen if this potential were unleashed, though it also acknowledges that cloning is not necessarily the real problem. In the current Writers Theatre revival, directed with measured assurance by Robin Witt, Churchill’s elliptical, staccato dialogue is delivered with clinical precision underpinned with seething pain and anger by William Brown as the father, Salter, and Nate Burger as his son, Bernard. It is Bernard’s discovery that he is one of “a number” of genetically identical clones that initiates the play’s dark ruminations on parenting, cloning, identity and responsibility. Too slight to offer answers, Churchill’s play, with its hints of dystopian horror mixed with family drama, nevertheless raises enough questions to make for a satisfying dip into genetic ethics as well as the more widely explored themes of inheritance and identity.

Director Robin Witt focuses her production on the paternal Salter and his choices, which, besides the usual parental choices, have also resulted in the creation of a number of copies of his son, Bernard. It takes time and some misdirection to untangle how this came about, but the revelation that he is not a unique genetic specimen disrupts Bernard’s life and sense of identity in ways that resonate beyond the play. Salter is also taken aback by the proliferation of offspring—one is enough for him, “a number is a shock.” He considers suing the scientists who have “dampened” his son’s “uniqueness.” As the narrative unfolds, Salter’s complicity in the creation of a new batch of individuals with matching DNA becomes more sinister. With each meeting with a copy of his son, it becomes clear that Salter’s failings as a father, husband and human have left a bigger imprint on those around him than the genetic inheritance that his offspring carry. As Salter and his biological sons hash out what it means to be unique, to be happy, to try to do the best one can (and sometimes to fail), the barbarity and miracle of human consciousness both are thrown into sharp relief. What redeems the play from dark hopelessness is Churchill’s sympathy for even the most horribly wrong-headed attempts to do the right thing, and an empathetic, wry sense of humor.

The action plays out on an aseptic set by Courtney O’Neill, with assistance from properties master Rachel Watson, whose organic touches—wood-framed furniture, wooden puzzles, leather accents, several bronze sculptures reminiscent of atomic models, a tree stump end table—do nothing to relieve the impersonal feel of the space “where Salter lives.” Three large windows mirror the sons that enter the space, but never open. Wooden wall sconces and metal practical lights are elegant but are deployed to add to the sense that we are watching an experiment or interrogation. Lighting designer Brandon Wardell reinforces the detachment, employing the practical lighting along with unsparing washes and sharply focused spots. Costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg limits her palette mostly to grays, reinforcing the family ties that go beyond DNA, and only relieved by the appearance of an outsider. Sound designer Thomas Dixon’s percussive piano transitions increase the edginess and horror of the set-up in a way that sometimes becomes overwhelming. Director Robin Witt allows time for the moments between characters to settle in, drawing out the strain and the emotional rifts that separate the characters. Though not always emotionally engaging, despite the actors’ intensity, Witt’s production meticulously dissects the individual characters’ relationship to each other and the DNA that links them.

Ranging between amiable, cringing and defensive, William Brown’s Salter never quite takes responsibility for his actions, despite offering a general apology. Brown’s Salter is the center of his universe, literally in the sense that he spends most of the play in the one comfy chair center stage. However, the Universe is not what he had thought he had engineered, and it forces him into confrontations that play out under the surface of Brown’s implacable façade, which only reveals a little of the panicked despair that is setting in. As a number of the clones that disrupt the familial unit comprised of Salter and Bernard, Nate Burger alters his voice and physicality, embodying the differences stamped on each character through their experiences of the world. The changes are subtle—the open, straightforward posture of the son trying to reconcile to his new reality, the tightly coiled stance and reedy voice of the betrayed prodigal and the amiable, shambling posture of the everyman—subtle enough to allow the differences to emerge from the inevitable resemblance they share and make for jarring contrasts. Both performers minimize their gestural vocabulary and register the emotional distress just beneath the surface.

Despite the science fiction premise, Caryl Churchill’s A Number is not so much about the perils of technology, as it is about nature, nurture, and what it means to be human. Director Robin Witt’s revival for Writers Theatre plays out with the steady deliberation of a laboratory experiment. This makes for a tense, absorbing and unsettling viewing experience that is not easy to leave behind. As Salter and Bernard, William Brown and Nate Burger seem trapped in the controlled anguish of their manmade predicament, which raises more questions than it answers. Is there inherent value in our uniqueness, our individuality? Do we have the right to choose what is best for others? Can science make better humans? If so, should it?  As one of the characters points out, humans share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and 33% with lettuce. Perhaps it’s not so much a question of DNA, as it is what we choose to do with it. Perhaps we need not fear science so much as the humans who control it.

A Number runs through June 9 at Writers Theatre’s Gillian Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. Performances take place Tuesdays – Fridays: 7:30pm; Saturdays: 3:00pm (except March 23) and 7:30pm; Sundays: 2:00pm and 6:00pm (except March 24, April 21 & 28, and May 12); and additional Wednesday matinee performances on April 17 & 24 and May 8.  There will be an open-Captioned performance on Thursday, April 25, 2019 at 7:30pm. Tickets for all performances range from $35 - $80     (purchase early for best prices) and can be purchased at the Box Office is located at 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, by calling 847-242-6000 or at www.writerstheatre.org. For more information visit www.theatreinchicago.com.

Photo by Michael Brosilow: Nathan Burger (L) and William Brown (back)

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.