On a recent Thursday I went to the Ashby Stage to see the Shotgun Players presentation of By and By, a new play by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Mina Morita.
We plunge right into the story, with Denise's shocked reaction to her father Steven's announcement that she was cloned from his wife Denise, who died in a car crash about eighteen years ago. He is finally telling her this because a quasi-governmental agency has been trying to contact them – this is a slightly future world in which cloning humans is possible, but not all that successful; most of them die in their mid-teens, so the agency is very curious to find out why Denise has so far shown no signs of the usual illnesses. The downside to the immediate plunge into the action, though, is that we have no sense of what this family is like normally. I'm sure it would be a bit of a shock to discover you were cloned (I wonder how people react when or if they find out they were conceived through in vitro fertilization?), but Denise's histrionic, obscenity-laden repetitions make her seem like an annoying, self-dramatizing adolescent, not like the wonderful person Steven keeps saying she is. (The dead wife, also played by Jennifer LeBlanc, shows up for Steven's benefit after the daughter has run away, and is much more appealing.)
The cloning is very expensive – a cost of a million dollars per procedure is cited. We live in a country in which millions of people can't afford even basic health care, and there is angry debate over whether they should be able to. No one raises this issue. We live in a country in which reproductive rights and euthenasia and respect for life and what that means are also fiercely debated, but no one raises those issues either. We live in a country in which wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in a small percentage of the population, but here cloning seems widely and easily available. (No one seems concerned about overpopulation, either.) The only objection to the process seems to be that it doesn't work that well, which is why the quasi-governmental agency seems to be trying to shut down or at least control the process, despite the money to be made, a development which, how shall I say, does not seem congruent with long-term trends in American society. (As in last season's uneven Precious Little, the play is weirdly blinkered by a very narrow, class-privileged view of American realities). Some of the obvious (and potentially lucrative) possibilities of cloning are never mentioned at all: organ harvesting, for example, or the creation of a class of special workers or soldiers (that may seem too science-fiction-dystopian, but I recently saw an article on physiological research to increase wakefulness in combat soldiers; a huge amount of scientific research is funded by the military, and our society is increasingly militarized, but not in the world we see here).
Money is treated very vaguely throughout. The cost of the procedure is mentioned, but not how the families raised the money, or how the massive debt affects their lives; the only other clone we meet is a young black man who seems to come from an ordinary middle- or maybe working-class family. How did his mother get a million dollars to recreate her son? Steven (I wonder if he was made so nebbishy so he didn't seem like a Dr Frankenstein?) assures his daughter that he quit the lab after he cloned her, but though there's no indication he works anywhere else, he seems to have plenty of money – presumably he gets some sort of residuals from the process, since he invented it, though again this is never spelled out, and no one, even the angry receptionist at the clone support agency, accuses him of profiting from the pain of others, and he seems to think that quitting the lab absolved him of all further association with cloning.
I've gone on here about cloning and money because the play doesn't. It uses cloning almost entirely as a metaphor for trying to hang on to a loved one in spite of death. (Though it's an imperfect metaphor since, as Steven assures his daughter, cloning doesn't recreate the same person, because of the influence of environment and so forth – this raises the interesting possibility that some people paid a million dollars for what turned out to be an unsatisfactory reproduction of a missing original, but that possibility isn't explored).
As I mentioned, Steven's wife appears to him when his daughter runs off, and she is full of the sort of warm, loving wisdom not untinged with condescension frequent to spirit visitors from beyond as well as to wives. She finally urges him to let her go – in other words, he may be the agent of his actions, but she is the agent of his emotional growth. In life as on stage, that's certainly not an unknown situation, but it would have been maybe less conventional to have a more painful realization on his part – that his experiences as a father and widower and scientist had led him to grow past her, since her development had been cut off by her early death.
At the end, father and daughter are re-united; he has tried to shield her from scrutiny, but now, in an effort to move on and, in general, heal, he talks her into going public with him. Earlier his dead wife had chided him for not dating again (though she also expresses jealousy that he might do so) and had mentioned how restricted his life has been since her death, and even though this is because he's trying to protect his cloned daughter, I also thought that maybe Gunderson had noticed, as I have, how underpopulated a lot of plays are. But I guess I was wrong about that, since father and daughter head off into a future that seems clear of anything to trouble or harass them, outside of the committee: for one thing, there seem to be no media, social or mainstream, that might hound and exploit them (can't you see the headlines now? "Clone Girl Breaks the Silence! Clone Girl: 'I'm not my mother!' Clone Girl in DUI!"). There is no indication that there might be violence directed towards them, or even lawsuits, or other unpleasantness or danger. It's all about their personal emotional growth, which seems to happen in a social vacuum.
It's not that every play needs to be a searing denunciation of American realities, but if you're going to bring up a topic like cloning, you need to make it more than a hook. I had the feeling Gunderson really just wanted to write a play about moving on after the death of a loved one. And as such this play has some touching scenes – between father and daughter, and husband and wife, and with the ill young man, and with the wife's kindly, aging sister, whose mind is starting to wander. There are some beautiful speeches about appreciating each moment, because you never know which will be the last (I guess I envy people who haven't already been taught that by life). But the superficial handling of the cloning theme keeps weakening the play.
The cast is strong, though I felt they were sometimes a bit too emphatic, but then I often feel that, so maybe that's just me, though the Ashby Stage is such an intimate space, I wish more advantage were taken of the intimacy. Michael Patrick Gaffney is Steven, Jennifer LeBlanc is both wife and daughter Denise, Lynne Hollander plays the other female roles, and Bari Robinson the other male roles (it would have been witty, or at least interesting, to work the multiple roles played by two actors into the cloning theme). The play moves rapidly, lasting about seventy minutes with no intermission. It runs through 23 June; click here for more information.