In play on cloning, parenting, Splinter Group dials winning 'Number'

By Mike Fischer, Special to the Journal Sentinel

Along with Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill could stake a claim as Britain’s greatest living playwright, but her work — elliptically postmodern, provocatively political and very dark — is hardly ever performed here.

Closing out its second season, Splinter Group continues its pattern of staging such pieces with its production of Churchill’s “A Number,” a two-actor play that’s ostensibly about cloning but really about a theme that runs through much of Churchill’s work: lousy parenting and neglected kids. It opened over the weekend under Jake Brockmann’s direction.

The bad parent here is named Salter. As soon as we see James Farrell’s impersonation, we know there’s something off about this squirrely character, whose every move is as careful as his punctiliously correct slacks-and-shirt combo — studiously casual wear, for a brittle man who is too stiff and unsure to ever truly express what’s best and most genuine about how he feels.

Pacing back and forth while clasping and rubbing his hands, Farrell is one uptight cat, leaving little doubt that Salter has a lot to hide. As we’ll see firsthand, once Bernard — Joe Picchetti, genuinely casual in jeans and flannel, with slightly tousled hair — begins asking Salter for answers.

Bernard has spent his first 35 years believing that he was Salter’s only child. Guess again: In the first of this play’s five scenes — unfolding without intermission over 60 minutes — Bernard learns that he is one of as many as 20, each a clone of a now-vanished original whom Salter insists is dead.

But he isn’t: That mysterious missing link reappears in Scene 2, as the “true” Bernard, now 40, from whom the 35-year-old clones were made. Before the night is done, we’ll meet yet a third of Salter’s genetically identical sons.

They’re all embodied by Picchetti but each one is unique, and not just because of Picchetti’s quick costume changes between scenes. As is true with the three similar abstract paintings on Salter’s living room wall, Salter’s sons are also distinct because they’ve been framed, placed and colored differently.

Picchetti adeptly sketches three very different men, ranging from comfortably adjusted to nearly psychotic; Picchetti lets us see how and why their genetic similarities ultimately mean less than do the significant differences in how they’ve been raised.

Churchill clearly chooses nurture over nature here; as is so often the case, what’s most bracingly radical about her vision is how determinedly old-fashioned and humanist it can be, in a world where we increasingly and arrogantly assume that technology can fix everything.

Including mistakes in parenting.

There’s not a parent alive who hasn’t wished for a do-over that might eliminate things better left unsaid and undone; every new child represents another opportunity to get it right. And while most parents seeking a second chance wouldn’t go so far as cloning a child, nearly every parent spends time indulging fantasies in which relations with a child remain innocent and unblemished.

“I can’t put it right anymore,” Salter belatedly recognizes, as his mistakes finally catch up with him. As Churchill powerfully demonstrates, mistakes always do — even in an age of mechanical reproduction.

IF YOU GO

“A Number” continues through May 24 at the Marian Center, 3211 S. Lake Drive. For tickets, visit splinter-group.org.

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