British playwright Caryl Churchill has never made art easy for herself, her actors and directors, or her audiences. Possessor of a restless intellect, a historian’s reach, a psychologist’s penetration, a moralist’s demands, a poet’s voice, and a master dramatist’s stunning theatricality, she can’t stand still, let alone pat. A name to reckon with internationally for the 30 years since the premiere of her best-known work, Cloud Nine, Churchill has been fearless, if chilly, onstage, leaping across cultures and centuries, breaching sex roles, confronting political, economic, and mythic powers, and seemingly reinventing herself with each of her many outings. Followers never know what to expect next (rhymed verse? stilt-walking? a shape-shifter loosed on London?), although, disturbingly, themes of murder and of the emotional abuse of children appear more often than not, as they do again in her 2002 A Number, the hour-length drama now at the North Carolina Stage Company.
A Number fairly represents Churchill’s writing over the last dozen years, in which she has pared her theater back to the actors and a stripped-down language, though she still deploys a humor so black interpreters and theatergoers sometimes miss the joke. The superficial subject is human cloning. Though a good deal of the argument between the characters concerns the impact of knowing that genetically identical versions of one’s self wander the world, it soon becomes plain that no clones are needed to make one’s sense of self problematic. More than anything, A Number concerns itself with the numberless ways in which we misunderstand and neglect ourselves and others.
The story is told in five brief confrontations between Salter, a man in his early 60s, and three of his sons, none of whom are aware of each other’s existence before the action begins. It unravels the mystery that led to “some mad scientist” illegally making copies of Salter’s firstborn — a mystery that deeply involves the mother, who never appears and yet remains key to understanding Salter’s damaged personality. Churchill’s script offers no directions or other clues for staging beyond a highly stylized effusion of often unpunctuated and contradictory words. The difficulty of mounting this work is deciding how to go about it: stylize or humanize? In the hands of director Ron Bashford, this Number attempts to have it both ways, with mixed results.
The stylization is embodied in the use of an arena setting. Bashford, in a program note, vigorously sets out the reasons advocates of theater in the round have long championed its impact. Some believe such stagings are more involving than the standard picture-frame proscenium, bringing viewers more directly into the action, as at a sporting event.
Proponents of Brechtian, “thinking” theater suggest that being able, or forced, to see fellow patrons throughout a performance reinforces one’s awareness of attending a show, encouraging an intellectual grappling with content rather than an emotional response. Maybe so, but there are also drawbacks to an arena: a tendency toward circular, sometimes dizzying blocking; the possibility of distraction due to fidgeting in the audience; and the likelihood that, at meaningful moments, one ends up looking at the back of an actor’s head instead of his face.
Lighting an arena is also extremely problematic, almost invariably resulting in shadows more unavoidable than intentionally atmospheric. (The low ceiling and short throws of NC Stage’s space only complicate an already difficult job for the lighting designer, and an oddly unbalanced arena focuses far too much attention on a single row of the audience.)
The acting, on the other hand, has been handled naturalistically, with the text plumbed for full psychological truth. Charles McIver, always an engaging performer, plays the sons, creating subtle variations altogether appropriate to such similar beings; he’s especially winning in his most genial part, but his villain isn’t always as frightening as he should be. Graham Smith, as Salter, also exudes an appealing humanity; unfortunately, Salter understands and presents himself in confusing ways never resolved by the performance.
Pacing, more than anything, is at issue here. Handling the dialogue realistically slows down the headlong rush so evident on the page, as does making the breaks between each of the scenes longer than necessary. This hinders the emergence of laughter, whether nervous or otherwise, making the production more ponderous than powerful. A couple of unscripted gestures also detract momentarily: an awkward reach for a hug motivated neither by speech nor the preceding action; a similarly strained proffering of flowers.
Towards the end of the play, Salter says, “It’s been like a storm going on.” Though this may change in the course of the run, the first performance of this worthy production of A Number was, sadly, too often becalmed.
Directed by Ron Bashford. Scenic Design: Don Baker. Lighting Design: Sarah Elliott. Sound Design: Hans Meyer. Costume Design: Deborah Austin. Production Stage Manager: Connie Silver. With: Graham Smith (Salter); Charles McIver (Salter’s sons).