“A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.” – International Women’s Day 2021
Nearly a quarter-century before Dolly Parton invested in the Moderna vaccine, she inspired another scientific breakthrough of sorts. In 1996, Dolly the Sheep, named for the patron saint of country music herself, was birthed via nuclear transfer, a form of cloning.
The discovery opened a Pandora’s box of ethical and legal questions, many of which are examined in Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play A Number.
Churchill’s play explores fractured familial relationships and scrutinizes the consequential damages of actualizing the hypothetical. It is a deep dive into the complexities of the nature vs. nurture divide. Part provocateur, part puppeteer, Churchill is a master manipulator of language, winding her way around specificity and ambiguity, ratcheting up tension and intrigue along the way.
So, does Raleigh Little Theatre have the wherewithal to effectively contemporize Churchill’s complicated interrogation of biotechnology then to the pandemic-laden news cycle of right now? The answer is an unequivocal yes.
David Henderson (Salter) and Jesse Gephart (B1, B2, Michael Black) play father and son(s). Although it might have been easy to fall prey to anticipating or telegraphing what is coming next in a piece like this, neither one falter for a second. They are in the moment, affording the audience room for discovery and surprise. Theirs is a masterclass in timing, control, delivery, trust, and nuance.
Director Patrick Torres’ staging feels revelatory. He adheres to social distancing guidelines while maintaining the integrity of the script and characters. Movements are mechanical, intentional, and shift as the dynamic between these men morph scene to scene. I am not sure Torres’ staging would have been any different in a pre-COVID world, which is a testament to just how unencumbered this production feels.
Design elements and videography very well could have stymied this production’s strengths. Typically, these technical elements are where good staged productions filmed for home viewing get lost in translation. This production, however, does not suffer that fate. In fact, Sonya Drum’s set, with its blue, green, and harvest gold hues and acrylic chairs, radiates a retro-futuristic vibe, while Jeremy Diamond’s lighting is picture-perfect.
There is nothing easy about A Number. Audiences will have to pay close attention to Churchill’s rapid-fire dialogue and may even want to consider reading a plot summary beforehand to contextualize what they are watching. But I challenge you to make the effort for this play, not only because Churchill is one of our most significant contemporary feminist playwrights, but also because this production feels timely, relevant, and even ground-breaking on its own merits.
The Raleigh Little Theatre production of A Number runs through March 13. For ticket information visit https://raleighlittletheatre.org/. Hear what Patrick Torres and David Henderson have to say about the production here.
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