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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Number

You called them things. I Think you'll find them people. — Bernard 2
A Number

(L. to R.): Larry John Myers (Salter) and Jay Stratton (Bernard 1) Photo credit: Rick Teller
Scientists theorize that sex seems to have been invented about two billion years ago when two organisms somehow exchanged DNA segments and introduced a stunning array of new varieties. Most of the successful organisms on earth have continued along that path to this day.

But recent scientific discoveries and increasingly sophisticated experiments have created possibilities in human evolution that we may not really be ready for, either psychologically or legally, to accept. One such advance is in the area of cloning.

Caryl Churchill's A Number is a riveting dramatic exploration of the many possible outcomes of this procedure. Science has somehow brought us back 2 million years where many copies of the same being can be formed by splitting cells from one original and Churchill's agile mind delves into the what-ifs as played out by two men — Salter (Larry John Meyers) and Bernard One, Bernard 2 and Michael Black ((Jay Stratton). As performed by the Chester Theatre Company our minds are flooded by the staggering moral, ethical and emotional implications in this taut sixty-minute implosion of human trial and error.

The question often posed about many recent accomplishments of scientific endeavor is: Even if it is possible, should we? Are we ready to accept the outcomes which may have devastating repercussions, any of which our societies have not yet devised the means to cope with never mind even imagined.

The confrontations between Salter and Bernard 1 and 2 and Black also play out the classic father-son standoff, though in this situation the stakes seem a little higher. Who is the original? Why did dad do this? What does this mean to one's own identity and sense of selfhood?

Salter is at times devious presenting various versions of the truth and defensive about his choices as he attempts in turn to understand or hide his own inadequacies. Each "son" as he confronts Salter is at times angry, confused, betrayed, grateful or bemused by his father's inability to face the truth of his actions. Salter tries to rationalize his past actions and deflect the questions of his three versions with talk of lawsuits and “them” reducing the copies to dehumanized objects.

As this age-old parent-child reckoning is replayed, the horror for Salter is that these three are just the beginning . . . there may be twenty more. He is in for some further rough visits with multiple outcomes.

The confrontation between Salter and his progeny is confined to a bare stage, table, three chairs and eerily reflected by Mylar mirrors suggesting multiple images of the main characters, and suggesting the multiple reproductions as yet undiscovered.
But the father is mirrored as well — the human enigma — who was and is this man who after the mysterious loss of a first child decides to clone rather than start again and create an entirely whole new being. Salter's subterfuge leaves us wondering about the condition of his own psyche and motivation in setting this flawed family dynamic in motion.

Churchill's language is sharp, fast-paced and cryptic. Questions are raised and answers stalled or circumvented. The pregnant pauses abound as each son tries to sort through his loss of uniqueness and need for fact.

Salter at times appears defiant then chastened by his past, yet not enough to entirely reassure each of his issue; no matter how many sons Salter produced, did he ever deserve even one?

Churchill deftly explores the question of nature vs. nurture and responsibility for one's own actions as each complication disrupts this dystopian domestic dream. The lighting by Lara Dubin and sound by James McNamara enhance the undertone of insecurity. Elizabeth Pangburn's costume changes define each character's distinctive persona.

The acting by Meyers and Stratton is compelling. Meyers' tone and emotional reactions are at time mercurial or restrained creating a complexity that keeps the audience involved. Stratton's body and face literally change as he portrays the three sons. Though they are different characters he subtly utilizes comparable gestures or intonations. Both men deliver dynamic acting lessons.

Byam Stevens, director and Chester's artistic director, avoids artificial overly emotional confrontations by having has his actors use pauses and movement to convey confusion or menace. He has staged the play so that it is tight with simplicity and control, a challenging and beautifully acted theatre experience,
A Number by Caryl Churchill
Director: Byam Stevens
Cast: Jay Stratton (Bernard 1, Bernard, 2, Michael Black,) Larry John Meyers (Salter)
Set Design: David Towlun
Lighting Design: Lara Dubin
Sound Design: James McNamara
Costumes: Elizabeth Pangburn
Stage Manager: Erin C. Patrick
Running time: 60 minutes; no intermission
Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA (413)-354-7770
Previews: July 30; Opening July 31; closes August 10
Reviewed by Gloria Miller opening performance on July 31
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