CHESTER -- On the surface, Caryl Churchill's richly packed play, "A Number," is about the moral and philosophical implications of cloning as a father and three sons who didn't know any others existed try to bridge the cavernous gap between them.

But watching the crisp, finely tuned, skillfully crafted and acted production of Churchill's play at Chester Theatre Company, it is clear that something else is operating not far below the surface of this compelling 60-minute piece that unfolds in five vignettes between a man named Salter (Larry John Meyers) and his sons, Bernard 1 and 2 and Michael Black (all played by Jay Stratton).

Confused, uncertain, perplexed at his history and how he came to be, Bernard 1 tries to put together the pieces of a life he has learned may not be exclusively his while, paradoxically, it is.

This 35-year-old Bernard speaks in unfinished sentences, often interrupted by a father who, in his 60s, is trying to come to terms with a past -- a portion of his past -- that is catching up with him.

Where Bernard 1 is cautious, uncertain, apprehensive, fearful of what might happen were he to run into any of his fellow clones, the 40-year-old Bernard 2 is rougher hewn physically and in his temperament -- angry, resentful, challenging. When, after having met Bernard 2, Bernard 1 expresses fear that Bernard 2 might kill him, we know where that feeling comes from.


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By comparison to the Bernards, the 35-year-old Michael, the third son, is affable, accepting, unquestioning, content, unlike the restless and tormented Bernard 1 and 2 and Salter, who is burdened by the failures of his past and his responsibility for a situation that has grown out of control as he blithely went about his business trying to create the perfect son.

Identity, our makeup, how we are defined -- by others, by ourselves; who has ownership of our identity, our lives are among the dominant elements in the play's compelling thematic currents.

Metaphorically and literally, "A Number" also is about fathers and sons, connections and disconnections, the debts each owe the other, the responsbilities they share, the mantle of accountability each wears as the relationship defines and redefines itself over time.

Expertly using a score Philip Glass composed for choreographer Twyla Tharp, Stevens and two extraordinarily resourceful actors courageously plunge into a great unknown in an inviting exercise that is more than worth joining. Theater Review

A NUMBER by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Byam Stevens; set design, David Towlun; lighting design, Lara Dubin; costume design, Elizabeth Pangburn; sound design, James McNamara. Through Sunday. Eves.: 8 Wed.-Sat. Mats.: 2 Sun. Chester Theatre Company, Chester Town Hall. 15 Middlefield Road, Chester. Tickets: $30, $35. (1-800) 595=4849. 1 hour 1 minute

Bernard 2 Jay Stratton

Bernard 1 Jay Stratton

Michael Black Jay Stratton

Salter Larry John Meyers