Genetic cloning meets familial consequence in "A Number," the newest production from Williamsport's underappreciated but consistently en pointe theater ensemble, The Actors' Group.
Directed by Lycoming College Theatre professor N.J. Stanley, "A Number" stars Actors' Group veteran Tom Ryersbach and troupe newcomer Amy Rene Byrne.
The play, which opened June 20, will complete its run with performances at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Friday at the Public Art Academy, 217 W. Fourth St. Tickets are $10 and are available at the door.
The intelligent, dialogue-driven "A Number" clocks in at a fast, even blistering 70 minutes, but is worth the indulgence of a night of live theatre. Stanley demonstrates the sharp, tight direction typical of her productions and the play's actors are in excellent form.
Caryl Churchill wrote "A Number" in 2002, and in the ensuing decade its themes have only become more timely. The play wrestles with the ethics - or lack thereof - of human cloning, but it also tackles the question of social and parental responsibility. When it comes to copies, human rights, and a child's needs, who should ultimately take responsibility?
To give too many details would ruin the play's power and plot's inherently evolving nature. At its core "A Number" is the story of Salter (Ryersbach), a father and father figure who cloned his first daughter, Bernadette (Byrne), in the wake of his wife's death and his resulting struggle to connect with his newly motherless child. Doctors then cloned Bernadette further, though only one additional clone, Michelle, makes her way into the play.
In addressing issues of genetics and identity, Churchill's play plunges the audience into a family argument laden with enormous ethical ramifications. What is out of your power and control, and what is under it? When it comes to nature versus nurture, what influence ultimately dominates who a person becomes? What role do culture and upbringing have on a person when their genetic code is exactly the same?
As Salter, Bernadette and her clones, Ryersbach and Byrne are well-matched and make the most of the Public Art Academy's intimate, bare-bones set-up. There's no stage here - just a couch, a table, a rug, a wall, and two people to inhabit the space between it. The audience sits on chairs not five feet away from the actors.
The closeness heighten's the play's immediacy by creating a fly-on-the-wall effect. Emotions so front-and-center are impossible to ignore, and the actors can exercise more subtlety by not having to broadcast their performance as far as they ordinarily would have to in a typical theatre setting. It's a unique situation that rewards its audience.
Byrne handles the roles of Bernadette and two of her clones with subtlety and sensitivity and imbues her characters with necessary individuality. The importance of achieving this cannot be overstated - the play would not work if the actress could not achieve a balance between familiarity and individuality.
At first introduction, Byrnes' Bernadettes do seem alike in their outrage, but Byrne quickly distinguishes them, despite their identical genetics. Bernadette 2, who we meet first, is more sweetly pleading in her outrage, wanting to trust her father despite the fast-unraveling layers of her previously established life. The original Bernadette is a more sinister presence, her fury far closer to boiling over into violent outburst.
"If she had a baby, I would kill it," she claims of her clone. We have no reason to doubt her.
Ryersbach is likewise compelling as Salter, a complicated man desperate for fatherly connection and tragically unable to achieve it.
It's hard to know Salter, and his shifting stories never fully wins him the audience's confidence, but this is fitting, and allows a sense of balance in the characters' relationships. Salter's daughters' outrage is palpable, with few flashes of humor to assuage their anger and confusion. Heated exchanges culminate in moments of explosive anger, but the play's simmering emotions are tempered with genuine vulnerability and insight.
The play shifts in focus with Michelle's introduction. She's a married math teacher who is, of all things in this particular play, happy. Her part of the play is a humorous but aching - on Salter's behalf - meeting of strangers. Salter wants answers that Michelle can't give.
Despite its ever-evolving, increasingly complicated dynamics, Churchill's story is remarkably straightforward in the emotions that drive it. The deeper Bernadette 2 burrows toward the truth, the further it recedes into to the background. But "A Number" is less about closure than the quest for it, and that's what makes the play so delicious. The anger, frustration, love and rage - both childlike and adult - on display here are credible evidence of both moral quandary and the tightly woven bonds of family. That's a lot of ground to cover in a scant 70 minutes - and it's covered well.