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Chester Theatre's 'A Number' a thought-provoking play on the impact of cloning

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Caryl Churchill's 'A Number' at th Chester Theatre Company

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Everybody wants to be number one, right?

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What happens, however, when you discover that there in actuality 19 more identical to you? And what happens when you realize that you may not have been the original model? How does that impact your view of your place in the world?

That’s just some of the many issues addressed by the always-challenging English playwright, Caryl Churchill, in her play, “A Number,” which is now receiving a tension-filled but thoroughly entertaining revival at the Chester Theatre Company under the astute direction of Artistic Director Byam Stevens. Long before the British gave us “Orphan Black,” Churchill was already ruminating back in 2002 about the implications of cloning and specifically what it might mean to the clones themselves. Although it’s a short 85 minute intermissionless play, “A Number” succinctly and suspensefully posits what might happen should it be discovered that 19 clones were made from an original with all living out adult lives throughout the country.

On a stark set fashioned by David Towlun that consists of a table and three chairs surrounded by a semi-circle of 19 thin mylar-style mirrors of varying lengths, we meet Salter, a well-worn middle aged gent who is being confronted by his son, Bernard, who has just learned about the existence of the clones. Salter, a thoroughly unreliable character played amiably but with increasing fear and desperation as the evening progresses by the wonderful Larry John Meyers, tries to allay his son’s concerns, by telling an ever-changing story about the first son dying at a young age in a car accident and missing him so much that he paid to have him cloned. Then it comes out that he gave that first son away under suspicious circumstances while also claiming that he never knew “they” (the cloning scientists, presumably) created 18 other clones.

Churchill’s first scene neatly conveys all the confusion and questions that may exist in a clone’s mind, once they discover their identity. It is both harrowing and interesting to get such a look into the mind of a clone and Jay Stratton does a splendid job of conveying Bernard’s initial surprise and sense of betrayal, but more importantly the young man’s need to understand his role in relation to his father. Is he still Salters’ son? Does he have a place in his father’s life? Does his father still love him or does his father prefer the original Bernard, who is still alive.

Stratton then shifts gears for the next scene as the original Bernard shows up at Salters’ after having read about the clones in the paper, to excoriate his father for his initial abandonment and maltreatment years ago and find out about his 19 “brothers.” Dressed in a menacing black jacket, Stratton’s movements and voice take on an increasingly threatening tone as the initially jovial and confident Salter of Meyers becomes more wary and cowering. Meyers allows us to see how this man who has clearly been used to manipulating conversations throughout his life is now at a loss when confronted by his real son.

The battles among the father and his two “sons” will play out through two more riveting scenes, until Churchill allows us to meet yet another clone, the apparently well-adjusted and successful academic, Michael Black, who it turns out is married and the father of three children. Stratton again lunges into the opportunity to play yet a third character, distinguished by tweed jacket, glasses and a wide, unapologetic grin, who speaks with the more stilted cadences of an intellectual. Meyers now allows us to see a grimacing, grieving Salter, who just cannot accept this clone’s contentment, constantly pushing him to reveal more and more about himself personally. Meyers’ Salter is increasingly disappointed in Black’s answers as they do not contain the dissatisfaction, desperation and torment that he heard in the two Bernards’ voices. One of the questions that Churchill leaves us with is the old nature vs. nurture one: how much did the frequently negligent or distant Salter contribute to the Bernards’ attitudes rather than their own genes?

It’s amazing to realize that Churchill packs so much into a play that lasts a little over an hour but sends the audience out reeling with so much to think about. This is helped by Stevens’ winning production which adds more of a dose of danger than in a previous production I have seen. There are also the two exquisite performances by Meyers and Stratton who play very well off of each other. Meyers creates a Salter who is growing dramatically more tired as he ages, but is nonetheless believable as a type of father character, while Stratton demonstrates a range that allows him to differentiate between all three of his characters.

Elizabeth Pangburn’s costumes no doubt provide excellent external support for Stratton as he maneuvers between the two Bernards and Michael Black, while she dresses Salter in casual usually rumpled clothes, including some nightwear, that support our vision of his decline. Lara Dubin’s lighting helps differentiate the scenes, sometimes unexpectedly suddenly, while James McNamara’s sound design offers mysterious notes that enhance the tension.

For a fascinating thought-provoking evening of theatre, filled with two rewarding performances, “A Number” certainly fills the bill. I have deliberately not revealed certain plot twists and turns so the evening can still invoke the delightful shock and awe of discovery that occurs.

“A Number” plays at the Chester Theatre Company through August 10. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413.354.7771 or visit their website at www.chesterteatre.org.

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