BWW Reviews: Gamm's Impressive Double Bill A NUMBER and FAR AWAY Gets Season of to Exciting Start
One of the many great aspects of Rhode Island's theater community is the presence of companies and artists who are willing to take some risks. They don't always play it safe. They don't just do shows that are easy or simple or uncomplicated. There are at least a few area theaters that frequently put on productios of complicated, difficult, disturbing or thought-provoking works. The Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre is one of those companies and they have begun their season with another complex and even puzzling production. This time, it's actually two plays, a double bill from English playwright Caryl Churchill, A Number and Far Away.
While some audiences might not be familiar with Churchill's work, they really should be. She is one of the premier dramatists of our time, one of the most influential writers of the past century. Her work is often challenging, pushing theatergoers to really think, to expand their minds and ways of looking at or thinking about the world. These two plays, although quite different, are similar in that way. They push the audience to look at themselves and question their own beliefs, values, ethics, morals.
First up in the double bill is what appears to be a very simple, uncomplicated play, A Number. Two men sit in a stark white room, having a friendly conversation. As it turns out, they are a father and his son. Shortly after the scene begins, the conversation takes a strange turn, with talk about "copies," as in copies of the son. In fact, he is a clone, one of many, or a number, of clones, all made from the older man's first son, who may or may not still be around. From there, the short play moves quickly into very dark territory, raising questions about the ethical and moral choices that come with the science of cloning.
While cloning itself is used as a plot device frequently, and has been for some time, Churchill takes it to new, intriguing places by wrapping it in another thorny topic: parenthood. A Number isn't just about cloning. It's about how a parent might decide to use cloning or might choose to take advantage of cloning to make up for his or her past mistakes. If a parent acted badly or mishandled the upbringing of their child, could they use cloning to find a second chance? Should they? What might happen if they did?
These kinds of weighty dilemmas are handled expertly by the two fine actors in the play. Jim O'Brien plays Salter, the father of many sons. O'Brien does a brilliant job of creating a tortured soul, one who is still suffering the repercussions for the decisions he made long ago. He rides up and down waves of joy, sorrow, happiness, fear and dread, all with perfect believability. As his son, Tony Estrella gives one of his reliably masterful performances. Estrella is one of the area's best working actors and he shows it again here. As Bernard 1/Bernard 2/ Michael Black, Estrella creates three different men, all of them versions of the same person. While each of them may look the same, Estrella gives them unique body language, facial tics, mannerisms and behaviors and creates three unique individuals.
After intermission, the Gamm's stage is turned into something akin to a country home or cabin in the mountains. It seems a peaceful enough place, save for the shotgun hanging on the wall. The tranquil setting, though, quickly gives way to a disturbing piece of theater that pushes the audience to think about just what man is capable of and where we may be headed in the not too distant future.
Far Away starts with a young girl, staying at that country home with her aunt, who is awakened one night by noises in the dark outside. She witnesses some violent and bloody happenings, which her aunt quickly explains away. The scene shifts to years later and what appears to be a hat factory. Appearances may be deceiving as the people who wear the hats turn out to be prisoners, led to their deaths in some kind of gas chamber. Another scene shifts to years after that, when the young couple who met at the hat factory are now back where we started, in the country cabin. This time, though, there is violence and death and war all around them, a war being waged not just by humans, but by nature itself.
It is a nightmarish world that Churchill creates and the Gamm brings it to vivid life. Casey Seymour Kim is frightening and frighteningly good as Harper, the aunt with something sinister to hide. During the play's third act, she is on The Edge of insanity and Kim pulls it off brilliantly. The young niece, Joan, played perfectly by Lauren Durkin, grows up to work at the hat factory and is then played by the mesmerizing MariAnna Bassham. Bassham is a stunning actress who can tell an entire story using only her eyes and perhaps a smile. She also brings the post-apocalyptic insanity of the play's final moments into brilliant, true life. Finally is Alexander Platt as Todd, who meets and falls in love with Joan at the hat factory. Platt is the equal in all ways to the other actors, giving a performance that fully supports the emotional heft, challenges and intrigue of Churchill's play.