The works of acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill tease the brain–she explores a wide variety of subjects through inventive structure, edgy characters and unusual contexts.
The short and intriguing “A Number,” now at Aurora Theatre Company, premiered in 2002, when Churchill was thinking about the ramifications of cloning (American Conservatory Theater first produced it in the Bay Area in 2006).
It begins in medias res, on a tiny, sterile white set (Michael Locher, designer), enriched by Matt Stines’ eerie, futuristic sound score: An adult son has just discovered a secret that has left him feeling devastated and even betrayed. A few decades ago, after his wife died, Dad cloned their 4-year-old son.
But it turns out there is not just one presumably identical, slightly younger son somewhere, but “a number” of them, all sharing the same genetic material.
As the terse one-act continues in a series of short, punchy scenes full of explosive fragments of dialogue, layers of a family mystery are uncovered, bit by bit.
It’s not revealing too much of the plot to add that the original, given-away-at-age-4 son suddenly shows up and appears to be a psychopath.
And a third son materializes as well.
All three are vastly different in temperament, but then all three were raised quite differently.
Churchill’s four men raise a host of issues that make you wonder how you would feel if you suddenly came upon an identical you, but not exactly a twin. Would your identity feel weakened? Would you wonder who you are?
And the play veers into deeply emotional storytelling as original, bad-seed son rages at his birth father, accusing him of cruel parenting.
The nature vs. nurture conundrum and the ethics of cloning figure into Churchill’s teaser of a play (don’t expect a conclusive ending) and it’s to her credit, and to the credit of the two excellent actors, under Barbara Damashek’s astute direction, that this is more than an intellectual-idea play.
Paul Vincent O’Connor’s wonderfully conflicted father is so convincingly guilt-ridden that it’s all too easy to excuse his morally challenged past behavior.
And the chameleon-like Joseph Patrick O’Malley, playing all three sons, differentiates each in tone, facial expression and body language as completely as is necessary — that is to say, if a little bit of bad-seed son’s manner bleeds into betrayed son’s attitude, that makes perfect sense.
And sends the mind reeling over the endless scientific possibilities of it all.
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes May 6
Tickets: $33 to $65
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org