It’s the refrain of the imperfect parent once the hatchlings leave the nest, or, mortifyingly, become teenagers: “I did my best.” But what if “best” is not good enough, or even horrible? And what if you got a do-over?
In “A Number,” Caryl Churchill, of the English language’s most prolific and cutting edge playwrights, explores questions of identity and nature vs. nurture in her story of cloning as parenting redress. This succinct play — in runs under 90 minutes — is subtly but powerfully staged by artistic director and set designer Keith Powell Beyland’s Dramatic Repertory Company at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater through Nov. 22.
Director Daniel Burson keeps these characters — one father and his three sons — mostly sitting down to face each other. That, and the commonplace furnishings and wardrobe, helps move the drama into hearts and minds. Despite all the clones, this doesn’t feel like sci-fi.
The matter-of-fact set, an old man’s living room, ringed by suggestive piles of dusty, ordinary things, belies the festering truths roiling all but one of the story’s characters. With his Santa Claus beard, Charles Michael Howard, who plays the fallible father, Salter, employs an outward jolliness. But he metes out Salter’s capacity for denial, coverup, and extreme behavior in increasingly alarming doses. At one point, he lowers his eyelids to half mast, as if to hide the reality that what seems only regrettable is closer to something ghastly. Snippets from a series of 60s-era songs accompany the scene changes, where we see Salter puttering around in the dark, and the heavy guitars serve to portend an accumulating dread.
Fans of the BBC television show Orphan Black, in which actor Tatiana Maslany plays a growing cast of clones, will appreciate the virtuosity of Corey Gagne, who plays three drastically different-yet-identical sons under the audience’s close scrutiny in an intimate atmosphere. Although the play in the end is crucially about the father, it’s Gagne’s characters who together provide the foil and reveal the father’s folly, and there isn’t much room for error.
We meet Salter’s third son in the final scene, which has the most levity. But the humor — at which the quiet and attentive audience finally laughs — also manages to add heft to the questions continually seeping from the drama. How do we ruin the lives of the “perfect babies” we bring into this world, and at what point must we let go? What matters to our destiny? Our genes? How we are loved or whom we love? What, in the end, makes us who we are?
“A Number” by Dramatic Repertory Company is at Portland Ballet Studio Theater through Nov. 22. The show was reviewed Nov. 16.