Domestic drama? Suspense thriller? Science fiction? “A Number” is all that and more. An award-winning 2002 one-act by British playwright Caryl Churchill (“Cloud Nine”), the play packs profound questions about identity, fatherhood, and the future into a crisp 60 minutes that only gradually reveals the who, what, and why of its characters. The Players’ production has been masterfully directed and designed by Alan Mohney, Jr., with deeply felt performances by Ward G. Smith as Salter, a father with a secret, and Anthony Gervais as his son.
Or rather, sons. As the play begins, Salter’s 35-year-old son Bernard has discovered through hospital records that he is not Salter’s only progeny. There are others — identical twins created through some kind of genetic theft, his father surmises — and Bernard is not even sure he’s the original.
Salter’s reaction to this news is to quantify: He wants to know how many of these “things” are out there, and wonders if his son could sue the hospital for the value of each duplicate life. “I think it’s… like half a million each person,” Salter says, “because what they’ve done they’ve damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity, so we’re looking at five million for a start.”
This talk of money and identity is a conversational feint on Salter’s part – we can tell he’s hiding something – but it turns out to be central to questions raised by Churchill’s play. Can human life be reduced to a monetary value? Would you pay to create a new life – a new son? And are we really all that different from one another anyway?
We meet more than one of Salter’s sons in the course of the play. It’s to Gervais’ great credit that he manages to make each of these men absolutely distinct from one another: one nebbishy and distraught, one chillingly disturbed, and a third unflappably happy.
Salter is himself a shape-changer, from self-preserving to guilt-ridden. Smith navigates these shifting emotions with great subtlety, though he’s so comfortable turning Churchill’s elliptical dialogue into natural-sounding conversation that we occasionally miss hearing some of his words.
Indeed, Churchill’s script is a tough one to perform. But director/designer Mohney has clear control of his vision, carefully orchestrating the tensions between father and sons and making courageous staging decisions, like the shadowed face-offs between the two men at the end of each of the play’s five scenes.
A word has to be said for his set design — a spare but elegant grey-paneled living room with a backdrop that rises to the full height of Studio Grand Central’s performance space. The backdrop is covered with multi-colored horizontal LED lights programmed brilliantly by lighting designer Michael Horn to punctuate the play’s varying moods. Window blinds? Microscope slides? DNA ladders? You decide.
If you go to “A Number” (and you should), be sure to make plans for drinks or dinner after the show, because you will want to talk about it.
A Number Studio Grand Central, 2260 1st Ave. S., St. Petersburg. Through Nov. 20: Wed.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; and Sun., 3 p.m. $35. studiograndcentral.com.