On the surface, playwright Caryl Churchill has written a timely play about a controversial topic, cloning. But underneath that, there is a deep dive into more timeless concerns, such as what does it take to be a good parent, how much do we really affect our children’s development, and what would it be like if we had the option of a sort of do-over, like Groundhog Day? You can consider these questions in Churchill’s A Number, directed by Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, now being staged by the Runcible Theatre Company at the Royal George Theatre.
While the two characters Salter and Michael Black explore the moral implications of experimenting on one’s offspring, we get to travel those slippery slopes with them. The plot unravels in a relaxed way, slowly revealing the story and the culpability of Salter (Stephen Fedo) who plays the sensitive and bumbling elderly father so well that it is hard to fathom at first his level of involvement in the cloning process. It is easy to believe that he is as in the dark as his alarmed grown son Bernard 1—as he discovers he is not the original son—but rather one of many ‘copies.’ As they grapple with terminology like ‘copies’ and ‘clones’ versus ‘twins,’ they are struggling with the very desire in all of us to differentiate ourselves and hammer down what makes an identity. Is it how we are treated that makes us what we are, or is there a core to us that is unaltered by circumstances? At one point, Michael Black (one of Owen Hickle-Black’s three characters), tries to soothe his heartbroken biological father, explaining how we all share 99% of our DNA with each other and 98% with pigs, so having several unaccounted-for biologically exact multiples roaming the planet should really be no big deal.
Perhaps most fascinating about the story of A Number, beyond the riveting chemistry between father and son, are the nuanced differences between Owen Hickle-Edward’s characters. One son who had been raised by a caring father (Salter) reacts with shock and fear. Another son who had been abandoned by his alcoholic and neglectful father (still Salter— who apparently also has several selves) after being traumatized at a young age, is full of hatred and anger, and a third, who never knew Salter at all, takes everything in stride and is unfazed by the dramas his existence has inspired in his clones. It is a tragic and bittersweet revelation for Salter when the offspring he has had no contact with is the only one who can accept him.
Owen Hickle-Edwards and Stephen Fedo perform a very complex dance on stage, the intricate and ever-changing ballet of the parent-child relationship, and it is done with much passion and sincerity. As director Cameron-Scorsese’s first full production with Runcible Theatre Company, it has a sense of completeness and timelessness to it. Perhaps that is due to the sparsity of props (just one chair) on a blank scene (white walls) and with little effects (lights which flicker in and out when a new character is about to be summoned.) Or perhaps it has to do with the bare simplicity of the enduring theme of identity and the struggle for perfection that resonates within all of us.