BWW Review: A NUMBER at Writers Theatre
In true science fiction fashion, British playwright Caryl Churchill's gripping two-hander, A NUMBER, raises more questions than it answers. Set in the near future and structured as a series of tense encounters between a father and his grown son(s), the play premiered at The Royal Court Theatre in 2002 during the height of the debate over the ethics of cloning. Now playing at Writers Theatre, family dynamics take the foreground as director Robin Witt explores the devastating effects of a father's choices in the lives of his offspring.
The play's opening scene finds Bernard (Nate Burger) confronting his father, Salter (William Brown), shortly after learning that he is a clone. While this fact alone comes as no surprise to Salter, he is shocked to discover that Bernard is actually one of "a number" of clones, who were multiplied without the father's knowledge or consent by an unknown agent.
Disclosing much more of the plot would result in major spoilers, but it's safe to say that the action unfolds in surprising and unsettling ways during this production's 65-minute runtime. Early on, it becomes clear that Salter is an unreliable narrator, and it's easy to empathize with his sons as they try to piece together their own increasingly disturbing histories.
The nature-versus-nurture debate is never far from the surface, and Churchill also delves into related themes: what constitutes a person's identity? To what extent do children suffer for the 'sins of the father'? Can we ever truly start with a clean slate?
As I've hinted, we meet more than one clone during the explication of this heavy thematic material. Nate Burger gives an impressive performance in his multiple clone roles, ranging from violent and erratic to gregarious and engaging. William Brown offers a complex portrayal of Salter, an old man struggling to come to terms with the consequences of his past actions. Though the skeletons in his closet are indeed gruesome, his grief, regret, and longing for redemption are truly pitiable.
In the end, Churchill deftly shies away from providing easy answers to questions that continue to be relevant nearly two decades after the play's premiere. If you enjoy leaving the theater with plenty to think about on the journey home, this one is for you.
A NUMBER plays through June 9 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL 60022. Tickets are available at 847.242.6000 or www.writerstheatre.org.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
Review by Emily McClanathan