CHESTER -- In 2002, the stem cell controversy consumed American science coverage, Dolly the Sheep was alive and a serious celebrity in the United Kingdom, and Caryl Churchill's play, "A Number," debuted at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Churchill's play tells the story of a father, his son, and his son's many clones, and it captured the zeitgeist.
The play is no longer so directly ripped from the headlines, but like all good art, it still has a lot to say about the world we live in, from specific commentary on science (say, genetically engineered crops) to broader themes about family, identity and redemption.
All three of these concerns influenced Byam Stevens, artistic director of Chester Theatre Company, when he decided to bring "A Number" and direct it himself.
When the play begins, the father, Salter, played by Larry John Meyers, has sent his son away and cloned him so he could try raising him again fresh. The play begins when the second son, Bernard 2, at 35 years old, discovers he is one of many clones, and the original, Bernard 1, who is 40, returns home after a life in foster care.
That more than one clone exists is news to the father, as well. One of the unknown clones appears, and all three are played by Jay Stratton, so every scene involves the father and one of the versions of his son.
Questions about redemption fit the play into the theater's season, Stevens said.
Having been such a terrible father the first go-around, Salter turns his son away at age 5.
Can Salter redeem his first son's childhood by being a great parent for the second?
Questions about redemption become to all four of this season's plays at Chester, Stevens said. "The Amish Project" is about a shooting at an Amish schoolhouse and the difficulty of reconciling such a tragedy with the Amish mandate of forgivness. "Annapurna" tells the story of a woman tracking down her cowboy-poet husband after 20 years of separation to help him through dire straits. And "Madagascar" is about a young man's disappearance and his mother and sister seeking to find out what happened and what responsibility they bear.
"A Number" also fits well into the 25th anniversary season's goal of highlighting contemporary theater, Stevens said. "The Amish Project," by relatively new playwright Jessica Dickey, will round out the summer. Sharr White, writer of "Annapurna," is just now exploding onto the scene; J.T. Rogers, writer of "Madagascar, is fairly well established, and Churchill is "maybe the greatest living British playwright," Stevens said.
The technology of cloning, for Stevens, also connects to a variety of questions about genetic technologies. He wonders what it would mean if scientists could alter the genes of fetuses to make them smarter or more beautiful or even just healthier. They already have the technology to prenatally diagnose many genetic disorders, and those who can afford to can decide not to have children with such disorders at all.
What are people missing if medicine removes suffering, or even challenges, from the world? Maybe raising a child with disabilities would bring something important to that affluent parent who decides not to, he said And the concern about a slippery technological slope is omnipresent. How far can modern medicine be from prenatally determining hair color, for example?
This is the sort of concern technology always raises, Stevens said, and cloning need not be in the news to be of interest.
"Before you clone a sheep, it's a moot point," he said, but once you have done so, there are endless unintended consequences to be explored.
The consequences only catch up with people after they have already embraced the technology. For cloning, one of those consequences, in "A Number," is to force a rethinking of where people derive a sense of self. Of course, this question has always been there in the form of identical twins, but cloning can make 20 of them, born at different times.
Are people their genes, or their experiences? The form of the play, with one actor playing three characters also forces some reflection upon relationships. Stevens argues that both actors play three charaters: Who you are depends on who you are talking to. You act differently around your spouse and your parents.
Of course, this form is also extremely challenging in technical terms. Stevens underscored how much the actors have to trust each other for this play to function. It is so intense, and the dialogue is so complicated and broken that they can only rehearse one scene a day, for fewer hours than the contract would allow. More than that burns out the actors.
Churchill gives little in the way of stage directions, or even puctuation, which fits well with Stevens' directing style. Rather than sitting down and putting together dramatic stage pictures on paper, Stevens prefers to work with the actors and use their instincts, to make their movements as natural as possible.
In rehearsal, if he decides that a certain line would work best with the actors close together, he'll tell one something like, "Find an impulse in that speech to cross the stage." They negotiate motives and movements.
In a scene where Salter argues with his original son, the actor playing Salter, Meyers, proposed a motivation for a long speech he gives, and Stevens went with it. Sometimes an actor would cross the stage during a line, and afterward, Stevens would say something like, "That was perfect, keep that movement."
The actors use a light English accent (Churchill is English) to capture the "music of the language," but Stevens did not want it to distract. They use a minimalist set, and costume changes happen on stage in front of the audience. All the script says regarding the set is, "The scene is the same throughout, it's where Salter lives."
"A Number" is not a naturalistic drama, Stevens said, but a "dark, comic fantasy of the very near future."
If you go ...
What: Caryl Churchill's
Where: Chester Theatre,
15 Middlefield Road, Chester
When: July 30 to Aug. 10
8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday
2 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays
Talkback after 2 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Saturday shows
Panel Forum after Aug. 3 show
Admission: $30 to $35