A Number ponders identity issues and nature vs. nurture

Caryl Churchill is not a playwright who repeats herself. She doesn't have an immediately identifiable writing style or revert to certain kinds of characters or situations. Although her work tends to be politically aware, highly original and inventive in terms of stagecraft, each play is distinctly different. A Number, first published in 2002 when the world was agog with news that a sheep called Dolly had been cloned, is short, spare and evocative, a quiet but anguished musing on the topic of cloning, identity and nature versus nurture. The exposition emerges organically through the play's five scenes rather than being supplied up front, but the result isn't intentionally brain-teasing or elliptical. Plot isn't at the forefront; ideas are.

This plot follows a father, Salter, who has had one of his sons copied and who discovers that an unscrupulous scientist used his genetic material to create several more clones. As the action begins, he's in conversation with the original clone, Bernard — the man he considers his real son — and it becomes evident that Bernard's understanding of the way he came into being is false. He has always been told that Salter wanted to reproduce a first baby who died and whom he loved and considered perfect. But it turns out that son number one — also Bernard — is very much alive, and he appears in the flesh to confront his father in the second scene. Newly widowed and with a drinking problem, Salter had attempted to raise this Bernard, made a ghastly botch of the job, and placed him in care at the age of four. In one of the play's most straightforwardly poignant moments — and one that evokes the existential loneliness every one of us faces — this Bernard remembers calling for his father in the night: "I'd be shouting, 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!' I want to know could you hear me or not.... I didn't dare get out of bed to go and see, because if you weren't there, that would be terrifying, and if you were there, that would be worse."

Salter ponders his motivations — were they to create a perfect human being, or to erase his own shortcomings as a parent? — and considers legal action against the errant scientist; Bernard the clone is insecure and afraid, not least of twisted and homicidal original son Bernard. And then appears clone son number three, who turns out to be a completely different kettle of fish.

In The Skriker, the last Churchill play I saw, the main character spoke in a fertile, Joycean mix of imagery, poetry, myth, metaphor, sound, meaning and made-up words. But with its pauses, unfinished thoughts and sparing use of language, A Number sounds more like Pinter. Except that it doesn't, either. Those pauses don't communicate in the same way; you don't feel things left unsaid pressing up insistently against the lines. Instead, those things just walk quietly into your brain.

Under the direction of Christy Montour-Larson, the performances at Curious Theatre are subtle and economical. Salter remains evasive and repressed even as his life falls apart in front of him; John Hutton gives him depth. Changing from character to character right in front of an audience is always fun for actors, but Timothy McCracken does no showboating as the three clones, differentiating among them only through small, telling changes in gesture and intonation, and making each of them real.

Much of the discussion about cloning over the past decade has been predictable: politicized debates over nature and nurture, with many experts noting that science and technology have bestowed capabilities that existing legal and ethical structures just aren't equipped to deal with (particularly now, it seems to me, when so many thoughtful people have gone to ground or been silenced by the idiocy of prevailing public discourse). And after all the fuss, in this era of epigenetics, human cloning seems a lot less likely than it once did. But what still resonates is Churchill's essential question, the one raised by Bernard's cries in the night, and which most of us ponder when we're most alone: Who am I, and what does it mean to be me?

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman