REVIEW: Fathers and sons to the third power

By |2018-01-16T03:03:22-05:00October 31st, 2017|Entertainment|

By Robert Bethune, guest critic

Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” at Planet Ant Theatre is not about human cloning, even though three of the four characters in it are the product of that dangerous and fascinating inevitability. It is really about guilt and forgiveness as practiced in the workings of the ancient human conundrum of father and son. With respect to that fundamental theme, director Eric Maher gives us an impeccable production.
Bob Skrok as the father-figure, Salter, carries the burden of the guilt of the father, and Mike McGettigan brings us the desperate need of the first of Salter’s cloned sons, the bitter hatred of the second, and the eerily contented curiosity – combined with unwillingness to engage – of the third.
When your whole stage is the size of a breakfast nook, you cannot avoid intimacy, but this production delivers an austere and formal restraint along with it that takes it beyond mere proximity. That effect is not so much emotional power as it is heartfelt curiosity. What will they do? Are we to see loving embrace or murder? Enormity is constantly about to break loose.
The production places the play in a white-hot spotlight, and the play, though strong, does not quite fully survive it. Churchill makes constant use of ambiguous and incomplete language; in particular, Salter seems rarely to finish a sentence. Ambiguity and uncertainty are precisely what’s wanted to chart a course through undiscovered country, as cloning necessarily is – after all, we have no idea what’s going to come of it, even as it comes at us. However, her ambiguity sometimes shades off into mere fuzziness, and plausibility suffers. At heart, it is difficult to accept her premise as given. We must believe that this ineffectual, inarticulate, shabby man bought and paid for a human cloning procedure, and somehow that procedure got out of hand such that a number of human clones were produced and survived to adulthood. But the play does not deliver what we need to earn that belief. It gives us enough to coax us into granting it our belief as a favor, for the sake of the intriguing and complex argument, but not as the play’s unquestionable due. This robs power from the piece that cannot be fully replaced by production elements.
McGettigan’s vocal, physical and dialect work are impeccably skilled. He transforms from an upper-middle-class educated Englishman to a lower-class, hateful, violent British lout to a happy-go-lucky, thoughtless American and does it flawlessly. Congratulations are also due, I’m sure, to Kelly Rossi as dialect coach.
I particularly liked Maher’s approach to staging. He does not move his actors until movement is absolutely necessary, and when he does move them, he finds the most economical move available. His actors, on their part, have the courage to be still. It is like looking at a blast furnace when the doors are closed, the furies within clearly visible, but only through tiny openings.

‘A Number’
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck. Thu.-Sun., through March 3. Tickets: $15. For information: 313-365-4948 or

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.