by Byron Woods
Given that Caryl Churchill’s drama A NUMBER is at least ostensibly about cloning, you could say that each production mounted out of the theatrical DNA embedded in Churchill’s script constitutes a clone of the play.
It’s a tempting argument, but it’s wrong.
I actually touched on one of the reasons why in Tuesday’s review of Somewhere Out There. If a group of graduate students assaying Beckett can all but be counted on to reach a bewildering range of conclusions from a script in which all production elements are spelled out in significant detail, what chance of accord is there with a script like Churchill’s, in which almost none of the same specifics are?
For after describing the four character’s names, ages and familial ties—Salter, a man in his sixties, who is father to Bernard, age 40; a second character, also named Bernard, age 35; and Michael Black, age 35—Churchill’s complete stage directions for A NUMBER read as follows: “The play is for two actors. One plays Salter, the other his sons. The scene is the same throughout, it’s where Salter lives.”
Beyond that, the director, actors and design team are on their own.
Here’s where I’m supposed to say that it shouldn’t be so surprising, then, that director Mike Donahue, designer Jan Chambers and actors Ray Dooley and Josh Barrett reached several significantly different conclusions in this PRC2 production, which you should hasten to before its close on Sunday, than Raleigh Ensemble Players did in the regional premiere in 2007.
And yet, at least one surprise in this laudable production came as little less than an interpretive revelation.
As we’ve already discussed above and in our preview for this show, in A NUMBER a father has to deal with the reactions of two sons, both of whom have learned that clones—“a number” of them—have been made from the original son’s DNA. In very different confrontations with both siblings, the immensity of what actually took place gradually unfolds, and with it, the understated monstrosity of what seemed only moments before to be a harmless old fart sitting at his kitchen table.
To say the least, in Donahue and Dooley’s interpretation, Salter wasn’t always thus. And I’m wondering exactly how many directors—quite a number, I suppose—have looked at this same script without once contemplating the effects a sudden, traumatic and high-stakes “reunion” with a violent, uncontrollable reminder of his past might have on a man who has already lost several years of his life, and a child, to a post-traumatic stress disorder?
While every director sees the two sons, one light, one dark, in A NUMBER, this insightful production is the first I've encountered that saw the potential for two corresponding sides—in their father.
As Churchill’s taut interviews proceed, we note how the Bernard who’s lived the tough life of rough trade drags Salter inexorably back toward the dark side. At least some of the change is visible from the two production shots included here. The reader could be forgiven for concluding the older man in each are two different people. In some significant ways, he is.
Chambers has astutely identified A NUMBER as a “kitchen table play,” a work in which all of a family’s revelations come out (where else?) over the kitchen table. But it’s totally fitting that Salter’s stripped, essentialized and claustrophobic kitchen is decidedly unheimlich—not home-like—in its cold white linoleum, white table and retro metallic chairs that might have initially graced a government office in the 1950s. The jagged little room almost seems sliced in two by an interrupted wall of industrial metal plating.
Oh, it’s cozy. For a bomb shelter. Or a life spent underground, as Burke Brown’s lights and Ryan Gastelum's muffled audio more than once suggest.
We’ve seen well over 1,000 productions since our current rating system was implemented in 2003. In that time, only 16, including this show, have earned a five-star review. It’s our highest and rarest honor. It denotes a production that exemplifies the art form of theater at its very best. It recognizes a standard of excellence to which all companies should aspire.
Inevitably, much of a show’s achievement deals with the performances of the actors on stage in collaboration with a show’s director.
Director Mike Donohue and actors Ray Dooley and Josh Barrett all clearly have a penchant for suspense. Early on, there’s more than a touch of Hitchcock in domestic encounters that are anything but heartwarming, and in the sense of unease underneath both characters’ calibrated silences, hesitations, questions and carefully worded answers.
Later on, as the streetwise Bernard confronts Salter over his unique legacy, Barrett’s body language suggests nothing so much as a merciless, cunning and hungry velociraptor, closely scrutinizing its potential prey for the single weak spot it needs. Given the myriad changes Barrett makes in effectively differentiating between the first and second Bernard, Donohue seemingly suggests that, in the theoretical tug-of-war between nurture and nature, nurture—or the lack thereof—comes out on top.
Hitchcock also knew how to leaven dread with humor. While the laughs are few in A NUMBER, their timing couldn’t be improved upon. On opening night, as Salter continued to feign ignorance of all that has occurred, Ray Dooley got appreciable laughs in a serious moment with the single line, “We can sue.” In later, darker moments, Salter’s humor grows darker as well, before a moment of incredulity with his last son, Michael Black, that, in Dooley’s hands, nearly qualifies as a classic double take.
But it’s hardly the jokes that constitute the center of Churchill’s work. When Salter follows the darker Bernard’s lead into the pathological, we watch as they both relive—and slowly become consumed by—a shared and particularly negative memory. What we’re witnessing is the far more destructive psychological equivalent of chewing on an ulcer in the mouth. You know: the kind that’s so vivid—and rewardingly painful—when you gently damage it just a little bit more.
When people want a little more damage in Churchill’s world, they come back home. By the final scene, the emotional dysfunction of one character is so palpable we’re relieved—in more than just a comic sense—when his world view totally mystifies another sibling.
In A NUMBER Churchill suggests that even the most advanced genetic technologies qualify no one for a free do-over when one child—or one father, for that matter—just "doesn’t work out." Any sane parent knows that familial responsibilities aren’t diluted by the addition of siblings. They are multiplied instead.
Parents also know—or at least they should—that sooner or later, all children come back home. If they were abused there earlier, A NUMBER proves that the responsible party should take no comfort, even if they've brought nothing with them apparently more threatening than a list of questions.