Review: Caryl Churchill 's 'A Number' addresses personal identity, individuality

Caryl Churchill's "A Number" was written during a time of public debate over the ethics of cloning and premiered in London in 2002. Writers Theatre has mounted a superb production of this engaging meditation on human cloning, personal identity and the conflicting claims of nature and nurture. Part psychological thriller, part twisted family drama and part science fiction, this theatrical pas de deux in five scenes will continue through June 9.

As theatergoers enter the intimate Gillian Theatre, they come face-to-face with the geometric playing area dominated by a square window, a square carpet and a square table all possessing hard edges and sharp corners. Scenic designer Courtney O'Neill has created a sitting area that appears to be more of a sterile waiting room than a cozy living area. Sound designer Thomas Dixon's discordant, percussive electronic music sets the mood.

The performance starts abruptly. Lights come up, and the audience is immersed in the middle of an impassioned, emotional discussion between two men who reveal themselves to be father and son. The son is experiencing an identity crisis and seeking some basic facts and truth about his upbringing. The father seems to be less than forthcoming and not necessarily trustworthy.

Churchill continues to eke out clues and bits of information throughout the play. Each scene ends in a startling manner, and new scenes pick up in the middle of the action. The actors frequently interrupt one another, adding to the play's frenetic energy. By the final scene, it is the father who is seeking some basic facts about his son but cannot be satisfied by the son's earnest answers. Churchill surprises with much hilarious, absurd comedy in this scene.

This powerful, unpredictable, suspenseful tale is likely to provoke thoughtful discussion all the way home. Theatergoers may wake up the next day still thinking about the play. It offers intellectual and emotional depth, and illustrates the ways people rationalize bad behavior and unthinkingly objectify others, including their own flesh and blood. It asks important questions. If we had a do-over, could we atone for our mistakes? What is the value of a human life? What is the source of our individuality?

Dixon and lighting designer Brandon Wardell make invaluable contributions to the mood and energy of the piece. O'Neill has worked closely with costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg. The layered costumes in a muted color palette neatly reflect the characters' emotional availability.

As the guilt-hobbled father, Chicago actor/director William Brown is fearless in his portrayal of a troubled man insisting that he tried to become a better father and desiring appreciation for doing so. Unafraid of portraying a villainous character, he manages his relationships with flattery and lies.

As suggested by Churchill's thoughtful, complex script, Nate Burger as the son masterfully transforms himself from one scene to the next. Their tour de force performances and the technical elements were overseen by director Robin Witt, who offers a clear, integrated vision for this absorbing drama.

• Richard Pahl has worked as an actor and director for more than 40 years. While serving two terms on Elgin's Cultural Arts Commission, he produced its Page To Stage play-reading series. Recent directing credits include “Over the River and Through the Woods” for the Elgin Theater Company, "Spinning Into Butter" for Janus Theatre and "Making God Laugh" and a staged reading of "Peggy's Birth Day" at Steel Beam Theatre. He will be appearing in “Love Letters” at the Elgin Art Showcase in May.