Splinter Group’s “A Number” offers a troubling and dramatic look into the future

By Dave Begel, OnMilwaukee.com

In just 60 minutes, the Splinter Group manages to weave a story of such perplexing complexity that frequently you will wonder what the heck is going on and what is this all about.  But at the end, you are just as likely to sit back, look inside yourself and say, “Yeah. That’s what it was about.”And then you smile, proud of yourself for getting it.

The 60 minutes are “A Number,” the devilish and provocative play by Caryl Churchill that raised all kinds of hackles since it showed up in New York a decade ago.

Churchill, who is English, wrote the play when the subject of the ethics of cloning was raging. Dolly the sheep had been cloned in England, and the question of how far off human cloning became the topic du jour.

Like most of Churchill’s incredible body of work, she goes after the issue without any pause for gentility or passivity. She grabs it by the jugular and doesn’t let go until you are out of breath trying to follow the twists and turns.

In reality, though, this is a very simple play set in the near future.

Jim Farrell plays Salter, a father. Joe Picchetti plays his son, or rather, his sons. Three of them show up on stage, and there may well be another 20 or so roaming the town.

In addition to the examination of the whole cloning thing, this is also a poignant portrayal of the role of the father in the life of his son, as well as the son in the life of his father.

The production moves along in chunks, each chunk separated by a dimming of the lights and a slight change of clothes for Picchetti. He plays the son Bernard, the son Bernard and the son Michael Black. All of them are really the same person, the same genetic makeup.

The relationship between Farrell and his sons is so full. It is turbulent, full of hate and love and suspicion. It is deceitful and bracingly honest. It is full of both certainty and doubt. There are questions and more questions, and there are very few answers.

The one answer that is bitterly clear is that the loss of individuality, perhaps the most precious gift that man has, is both painful and confusing. All we may have is “a number.”

Farrell is moving as a father who regrets his fathership and longs to have a second chance. What he gets is a second, third, fourth and – who knows how many chances. And none of those chances make him any happier as a father. Ferrell catches both the angry truths and evasions that make up a father beset by doubt and longing.

Picchetti is a variable chameleon as the different sons, but he understands that as different as each of them is, the tie that binds them is stronger than their differences. It is his loss of a sense of self that creates the most painful moments of this production.

Jake Brockmann directed this play with a firm fist on a script that could easily get away from both the actors and the audience. He is a young director who clearly deserves watching.

There is nothing comfortable about being in the audience for this blistering production. But at the end, when you get it, you’ll be glad you signed up for this journey into the future.

“A Number” runs through May 24 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

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