A Review

Questions Of Multiplication

By R. J. Donovan

Caryl Churchill's "A Number," now receiving its New England premiere at Lyric Stage is a drama addressing several issues including love, guilt, father and son relationships and the question of "nature versus nurture" personality development. The jumping off point for it all is the subject of human cloning, although the word "cloning" is never actually uttered. Lyric's Spiro Veloudos directs.

To explain the plot in great detail would give away too much of the experience. So I'll only say that the character of the father (Steve McConnell) had a wife and son (Lewis D. Wheeler, far left) who were supposedly killed in a car accident. Out of desperation, the father had the son cloned.

However, the facility that performed the service took it upon themselves not only to clone the child, but to make "a number" of others from the supplied genetic material. As the play opens, father and son are contemplating this newly-discovered breach of faith and the existence of the other boys, now grown adults.

Although based in the sci-fi genre, the thought-provoking and very human play has the feel of a taut mystery. Playwright Caryl Churchill tends to launch scenes in mid-conversation. This adds nicely to the tension and forces you to listen carefully, just to put the clues together and discover what's happening. Aside from being an interesting manner of composition, it's an effective way to hook the audience.

Questions swirl as the intermissionless drama deepens. Are the boys really copies of one another? They look identical, but how do they think? How do they feel? Are we all born with a blank slate, or is there some predisposition? And while the "others" are all copies of the original, how much of the father exists in each of the duplicates, considering he had a role in creating the first one?

Both McConnell and Wheeler deliver solid performances in what can only be termed an intriguing experience in the theater. McConnell maintains a slippery grasp on the truth as he begrudgingly assumes responsibility and doles out snippets that explain what he did and why. As he answers, he also questions. Has this damaged his son's uniqueness? Has the boy's identity been diluted by duplication. Should he get credit or blame? And what of the ethics?

Wheeler has the larger challenge of creating unique personalities for three men who look the same but aren't. He so effectively wears his characters that by the time we meet the third son, he seems to bear no resemblance to the previous two -- even though they are all identical.

Special mention also goes to scenic designer Skip Curtis. His set is deceptively simple but serves the production well. The stark playing area, not linked to a specific time or place, forces focus on the conversations.

Like the Huntington Theatre, the Lyric has added several after-show discussions and special events to their schedule this season (see below). This is particularly appropriate for a production that touches upon such a timely topic. I stayed for the opening Sunday Talkback session informally hosted by McConnell, Wheeler and Veloudos. Judging from the animated conversation, "A Number" will trigger a wide range of issues and questions from audience members -- which is one of the great things about good theater.

"A Number" is at Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street, through November 19. For information, call 617-437-7172.

Special Events associated with "A Number"

Sunday Talkbacks:
Audience members can meet the actors and share their thoughts with their fellow theatregoers immediately following the 3 PM performance on October 30, November 6 and 13.
Thursday Night Forum Series: 
Audience members are invited to participate in a lively discussion on a topic related to the issues explored in A Number . Each discussion will led by panelists who are experts in their fields. 
The Nature vs. Nurture Debate
Thursday, November 3, following the 7:30 p.m. performance
Panelists scheduled to appear include Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of How the Mind Works and Blank Slate.
Caryl Churchill’s Methods and Meanings
Thursday, November 10, following the 7:30 p.m. performance
Panelists scheduled to appear include Churchill scholars Janet Gardner, assistant professor of English at UMass-Dartmouth, and Elizabeth Lyman, assistant professor of English at Harvard University.
The Science and Ethics of Human Cloning
Thursday, November 17, following the 7:30 p.m. performance
Panelists scheduled to appear include Kevin Egging, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University. 

-- OnStage Boston



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