Caryl Churchill's "A Number" at ACT

Caryl Churchill can raise more pithy questions in one short play than many playwrights can in a life's work.

Churchill, in all her dramas, demands the audiences to think. She's not out to confound them. She doesn't play intellectual one-upsmanship. In straight forward, sometimes intimate little encounters, she manages to lay before her audiences contemporary moral issues for which there are no easy answers.

And so it is with "A Number," now playing at ACT. Here the central topic of the play seems to be cloning but, of course, it's not as simple as that. In the play's single, 60-minute act, Churchill raises issues related to personal identity, nature vs. nurture, father and son relationships, the connections between brother and brother and the magic (or is it mischief?) of science.

On a minimalist stage, old man Salter encounters three of his grown sons, one at a time. Salter is a somewhat unsure, rumpled, nervous man, and he's uncomfortable with his sons. He's not just evasive but a bald-faced liar when asked key questions about who his offspring are.

Salter avoids responsibility for his own acts. At one point in his life he was a drunkard. Clearly he's a flawed human being, but you can't help but feel sorry for him. Whatever he's done in the past, he never anticipated the consequences of his decisions, and he clearly lacks the ability to deal with them.

Two of his sons are clones of the first son. They have never met each other before the current action; in fact, neither one knew of the other's existence. Nor did they know about the 18 or 19 additional clones that we don't meet on stage.

For two of the sons, the revelation is unbearable. Two of the sons were raised by Salter for at least part of their lives. Salter had never before met the other son.

Although they share the same genes, the three grown sons have been reared in dissimilar circumstances and have led unrelated lives. Their personalities are as different as their looks are similar. One is timid, easily frightened, deeply angered. Another is a boorish, threatening sort of fellow. The third is a happily married family man, at ease with himself and the world.

Tragedy is the inevitable outcome; you know it's got to happen. But I'm not going to give it away. You'll have to see it yourself so you too can ponder the many questions that Churchill has set before her audiences.

This is powerful theater, and Carey Wong's set in conjunction with Rick Paulsen's lighting work marvelously to highlight the mood. The play is performed in ACT's Allen Theatre in which the audience completely surrounds the stage. Action takes place on a central circle which is bathed in blue light as the audience enters the theater. Three chairs, placed to form a triangle, are the only props on stage.

As the play progresses, a brief blackout followed by the blue light separates the encounters between Salter and each of his sons. You'll be tempted to watch the off-stage action of the actor playing the sons, but you should look at the stage where the blue light forms a pattern on the bare floor - once a cross of sorts, another time a triangle. I didn't notice it at first and now want to go back to see the full progression.

Salter, as played by Kevin Tighe, makes a valiant effort to maintain his equilibrium in the face of emotional carnage. His hands twitch in discomfort in the presence of each of the sons. His shoes turn up as if he's clenching his toes, and he speaks in fragments, half-formed sentences that withhold as much information as they impart.

And yes, one actor plays all three sons. Peter Crook has the very difficult task of assuming three different roles with no break in between. He's a fine actor, but director John Kazanjian didn't give him sufficient tools to make the transitions. The three sons of course look alike, but they might have been made more distinguishable by some minor change in clothing. And their speech patterns might have been more sharply differentiated. The point is, after all, that genes aside, these are unique individuals.

Instead, the decision was made to make no costume change other than buttoning or unbuttoning the shirt. And there's too little change in modulation, accent and emotion evidenced in their speech. This is a serious flaw in a production that is as much an inquiry into human identity as it is a contemplation of the possible unintended consequences of scientific advances such as cloning.

Other critics have said that "A Number" is the first true play of the twenty-first century. Although some of the issues it deals with are as old as human society, others are issues of the near future. This isn't science fiction that Churchill is talking about. The genetic frontier has opened and scientists are racing to make their claims.

Churchill has wrapped these moral inquiries into a tight little theatrical package. You can't see this play without wanting to talk about it, and the more we discuss the questions she raises, the better it is for all of us.[[In-content Ad]]