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Familial, ethical conflicts erupt amid fierce clone wars debate in ‘A Number’

Nathan Burger (left) and William Brown star in the Writers Theatre production of "A Number." | Michael Brosilow

Here’s a number that sticks out like a shard of glass in playwright Caryl Churchill’s “A Number.” Humans are genetically 30 percent identical to lettuce. It’s a weird, compelling factoid in a drama filled with unsettling questions about the nature of being and consciousness. If we’ve all got huge swaths of genetic material that is precisely the same as something (or someone) else, can any of us really claim to be absolutely unique? And if those genes – the building blocks of who we are – can be manipulated, what does that say about who (or what) actually defines who we are?

In a lean 65 minutes, Churchill probes the terrifying notion that humanity isn’t defined by free will and singular souls. Maybe we’re all just amalgams of outside forces such as genetics or the environment or some vast algorithm that dictates what we buy, watch and engage with. Directed by Robin Witt, the two-actor drama, now playing at Writers Theatre, and set in the near future, forces audiences to question their own sense of self. If all that sounds like an overly esoteric Ted Talk, be assured that “A Number” is anything but. “A Number” is a shade too short to be entirely satisfying. But what unfolds within its brief span is fascinating.

‘A Number’

★★★1⁄2

When: Through June 9

Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe

Tickets: $35 – $80

Info: writerstheatre.org

For Bernard (Nate Burger), the question isn’t a theoretical exercise. It’s as immediate as his own flesh and blood, and as unnerving as the revelation that his mother killed herself years before he was born. It’s tough to talk the plot without spoilers beyond that. Plot aside, know that Witt has crafted a production that will good and truly mess with your mind.

One of the ways “A Number” does that is by juxtaposing “coulds” with “shoulds.” What if you could bring a loved one back to life? What if you could have a second chance at parenting a child you destroyed the first time around? Should you? In the world of “A Number,” there is no single answer.

Like its title, “A Number” is deceptively simple. There are five two-person scenes between Bernard and his father Salter (William Brown). In the first scene, we gradually piece together the reasons for Bernard’s agitation. He’s learned some disturbing things about his family. He turns to his father for clarity. Salter has answers, but clarity is not to be had. As the scenes progress, “A Number” begins to feel like a maze of mirrors, the walls of this mutant funhouse closing in on both Salter and his son.

Nate Burger (front) and William Brown star as a conflicted father and son in “A Number” at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow
Nate Burger (front) and William Brown star as a conflicted father and son in “A Number” at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Witt paces the dialogue like wind whipping bare branches. It comes in fits and starts, sometimes coalescing into a single, powerful idea that all but knocks Salter and/or Bernard off their feet, sometimes skittering in different directions that seem almost random. Nothing is random here. Small mentions that initially seem inconsequential – a cupboard, the dust under a bed, an underground tunnel – come back in different contexts that reveal startling new perspectives on things you think you already know.

Brown is one of Chicago’s finest actors and he does not disappoint here. As Salter, he seems to change his very shape as the confrontations with his son grow thornier. When the full extent of Bernard’s anger rises up in the second scene, Brown becomes almost spider-like. He’s literally backed into a corner, arms akimbo, hands grasping for purchase against a wall that offers none.

Bernard contains multitudes and Burger captures them all in a prismatic performance. The way we see Bernard is forever changing, even as he remains fundamentally the same. Initially, he’s all tightly wound frustration and confusion. That persona morphs into one of rage and threats before looping back to the earlier Bernard. Bernard’s final iteration is the most disturbing of them all: He’s a portrait of easy-going contentment.

Courtney O’Neill’s set design is intentionally nondescript. We could be in a furniture showroom. There’s no sign that anyone actually lives in this room, no photos or tchotchkes or dust. The lack of specificity ups the tension in “A Number.” We’re not in some distant, exotic land. We could be anywhere, including right here and right now.

“A Number” takes place in the future, but the ethical dilemmas it poses are playing out in real life. It’s been 23 years since Dolly the sheep was cloned. Last year marked the birth of the planet’s first three-parent baby. Genetic engineering is impacting everything from corn production to reproduction.

“A Number” is science fiction, but every day, the “fiction” part of that seems to be fading just a little bit more.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.