a number by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Steve Stettler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...the shocking thing is there is these..."
Munson Hicks as Salter; photo: Hubert Schriel
In Caryl Churchillís one-act masterpiece, "a number," the magic number seems to be three, but in reality it is 22, or 4 which is the total of 22. None of this is relevant because this isnít a play about numerology. This is a play about a father and a son and a relationship that is marred by trust. At the small, second stage of the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company in Vermont, "a number" is rattling audiences, motivating discussions about the moral and legal issues of cloning and doing its job of entertaining audiences to the very best of its ability.
Genetic engineering and its ramifications may not strike you as an exciting topic for a play, but in Churchillís hands it takes on so many facets, so many meanings, that it creates a world that would strike fans of The Twilight Zone as realistic. Salter, played by Munson Hicks, has asked his son Bernard, played by Christopher Donahue, to visit him. There is news to share. There are these... there is these... He cannot begin his tale, but when he does it is disjointed, difficult and hard to understand. The one thing that is clear is his anger at discovering replicas of his son, of knowing that someone has done something, stolen something of value from his son and he wants Bernard to sue someone for millions and get back a bit of what he feels his son deserves.
What he doesnít tell Bernard is the truth. Still Bernard trusts his dad and the ultimate result of Bernardís trust is an unanticipated death.
Salter has confrontations with two other men, one also named Bernard and another known as Michael Black. With each meeting it becomes clearer and clearer that Salter knows more than he is willing to tell, more than he can admit to his son or to anyone. Manipulation of facts, of truths, of trust and of knowledge is Salterís strong point and even when he has to pay the price, emotionally, of his lies and half-truths, he is a survivor and he can go on.
This play deals with so many issues, and in such a short time, that discussion about it could last for hours. Churchill writes characters and they are deep and dark and different from any other people youíve met. She writes them in short bursts with rarely a finished sentence among them. At times one finishes anotherís thought. At other moments no one can completely express themselves. Michael Black has perhaps the most conventional things to say and say fleshed out. He alone among the youngsters can finish a sentence, although he has a tendency to the superfluous which drives Salter over the edge.
Salter himself has no luck getting to the point. Even when he does make a definitive, declarative statement it is immediately washed away by the flood of half-expressed emotions. Hicks does this with ease and a finesse that makes it seem as though he is improvising his role on the spot, creating situations with lies and inconclusive statements. He has an instant rapport with his three callers, but never is he at ease with them. Hicks seems to be in control at all times, and yet there is something in his playing that moves that control-image to one side time after time after time as indiscretions and images combine to make us believe that a newly confessed truth is the real truth. Itís a wonderful, if confusing, performance and that confusion comes within the writing. Hicksís honesty in playing the lies makes them seem so real and right.
Donahue, on the other hand, brings three very distinct characters to the stage. Unlike Hicksís Salter who is always the same, even when heís changing his story or his point of view, Donahueís three young men are volatile, different and totally identifiable. The actor provides us with visual, vocal and emotionally diverse creatures, each with a need and a reason to express that need. He maneuvers his men into and out of their situations with Salter with simplicity. Unlike Salter each of the Bernards and Michael present their cases and lay their cards on the table. All three are unforgettable.
Stettler has taken this small play into an intimate space and provided a close-up of the lives of disturbed and disturbing men. On a neatly efficient set designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson, he has brought the issues in this play forward through a restlessness that haunts his protagonist, Salter. He has given Hicks the opportunity to express, through a constant movement cycle that rarely repeats itself, all of the lies and truths at his disposal. It is lovely work. Travis McHale has enhanced the visuals of this work through lighting that keeps every illuminating moment in a dim place, just as Salter does with his confessions.
A disturbing work, one that should be seen and heard, "a number" is among the most unusual offerings anywhere in the region this summer. Hats off to the folks in Weston for attempting it and for bringing it off so well. That takes professionals.
Christopher Donahue as Bernard Two; photo: Hubert Schriel
a numberl photo: Hubert Schriel
"a number" plays at the Other Stage of the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company through August 19. Ticket prices range from $26-$29. For information, schedules and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288.