We suspect and then learn early on that Bernard is a clone of Salter’s first son (also named Bernard). He confronts his father after a visit to his physician or an undisclosed laboratory. Churchill carefully omits or withholds certain facts. An audience more accustomed to a realistic play will expect them and seek them out, only to be unable to find them. But the questions that come up, the ones that orient a viewer, come to feel trivial and unnecessary to answer in light of the highly charged emotional exchanges. It doesn’t matter what prompted Bernard’s visit or in whose office. What matters is how his father responds to his confusion and despair now that he’s found out his origin story.
In telling his second son the truth, Salter becomes an everyman. Or, in this case, an everyfather. Now older, he wants to confide in and receive absolution from his son. But what comes out of his mouth is an inchoate set of regrets and longings. Here is his description of his wife’s suicide: “She was one of those people, when they say there’s a person under a train, and all the trains are delayed. She was a person under a train.” The last line is devastating because of its economy and what it reveals about him. He doesn’t elaborate on his reaction to her death. It’s devoid of any first-person response. His desire for connection has been thwarted by the habit of being numb.
As a widower of nearly 40 years, that lack of feeling has thrived in his domestic solitude. Salter has been unable to approach, let alone master, the vagaries of an intimate relationship. At least, not with his wife and not with his sons. If he has friendships, or a later marriage, we don’t find out about them. In their second scene together, he corrects his earlier lie that his wife, along with the original Bernard, had both died in a car crash. His decision to clone the child makes sense in this context. Salter recreated his son while in the midst of grieving. But when his son confronts him about the decisions he made and forces him to tell the truth, Churchill summons up the father’s suppressed doubts and insecurities and reshapes them in the form of an un-exorcised demon.
Bernard, Salter’s first son, pays him a visit — and it’s a vengeful one. He didn’t die, as Salter had explained to Bernard II. He gave him up for adoption and started over again. This time with a child who hadn’t experienced the trauma of losing his mother. Again, many details are absent. How, after all these years, does Bernard I find his father? How does he also find out he’s been cloned? Churchill wants the audience to approach her ideas rather than having to spell out these irrelevant plot points. The play is an anti-entertainment — allusive, understated and inconclusive. It stands in opposition to an advertisement or the consumption of social media. The playwright is thinking through something, not telling us what to think, and asking us to think it through with her.
Of course Churchill questions Salter’s sense of morality. A man who gives up his son and clones him later for selfish reasons is obviously damaged. But the science of cloning and its ethical implications are supporting characters in A Number. In the final act, a second Bernard-clone named Michael shows up at Salter’s door. Although all three men are essentially “twins,” Michael and Salter are unable to establish a rapport. Michael may share Salter’s DNA but they’re strangers to each other. Salter is missing Bernard I’s fury and Bernard II’s sorrow. He misses the complicated mess of what it means to be a father.
A Number, through May 6, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $33-$65; 510-843-3822 or auoratheatre.org.