The set of A NUMBER in Writers Theatre’s smaller studio space speaks for itself: We’re in a sleek, stylish but decidedly impersonal room where a father faces multiple iterations of his single biological son.
British playwright Caryl Churchill delivers her vision of cloning in a brief but intense 65 minutes. While the first successful cloning experiment produced Dolly the Sheep chewing her cud calmly amid Scottish greenery, Churchill’s imagination takes us to a frightening place.
We learn that the father, Salter, was so grieved by the sudden death of his toddler son years earlier, he consented to cloning the boy. But instead of one replacement, there are now over 20 versions of Bernard. “I don’t want a number of sons,” declares Salter. “One is plenty.” Salter debates suing the scientists responsible for the overreach. But for how much? A half million, a million? What precisely is the value of an individual life?
A NUMBER’s mysterious conundrum
Before he files any lawsuits, however, Salter must deal with his own actions on a personal level. And that means direct confrontations with sons whose identical DNA does not mean identical personalities. The first Bernard is reflective and insecure; the second riddled with resentment and darkness; the third genial and contented if not exactly the brightest penny. Salter finds himself dealing with all of the variations in rapid succession.
William Brown as Salter and Nate Burger as the three Bernards play out this brainteaser adroitly. In this writer’s view, Robin Witt directs the series of scenes as sharp punches, each one pulling us farther and father into A NUMBERS’ mysterious conundrum. Clouded by memory and emotion, Salter keeps shifting his account of what exactly happened. The sons’ recollections of childhood provide equally differing accounts of the past.
Humor erupts from time to time, as when Bernard points out that humans share 98 percent of the same DNA as chimpanzees – and 30 percent as a head of lettuce. It’s a welcome release of tension, although that doesn’t do much to blunt the horror of the situation and its violent outcome.
WRITERS THEATRE’s unsparing production
Much as the father-son encounters are intimate, Writers Theatre’s unsparing production of Churchill’s script keeps us at a distance. That’s probably the safest place to be. The math of cloning is chilling but the hearts beneath the science blaze with emotion. Salter’s pain at losing his son feels as fresh as the day it happened; so does the pain of the confused offspring who were created to alleviate it. Full of sentiment yet entirely unsentimental, A NUMBER will engage those eager for an intellectual challenge built on human relationships.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Robin Witt – director
Courtney O’Neill – set design
Mieka van der Ploeg – costume design
Brandon Wardell – lighting design
Thomas Dixon – sound design
Bobby Kennedy – dramaturg
David Castellanos – production stage manager
Now through June 9
Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 PM
Saturdays at 3:00 & 7:30 PM
Sundays at 2:00 & 6:00 PM
325 Tudor Court
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.