Theater Review - Family way

Slide glides into cloning debate

“Twins are nature’s clones,” says one of the identical sisters in Slide Glide the Slippery Slope at Synchronicity Performance Group. The line by playwright Kia Corthron evokes the spooky qualities twins can have — they look alike, talk alike, even think alike at times. But the playwright also means to demystify cloning, whose sci-fi connotations get closer to home every year.

The future of “normal” families fascinates Corthron, and she winds genetic debates through the strands of Slide Glide’s DNA. The “slippery slope” of the title refers to reproductive research, which started with in vitro fertilization and will lead inevitably to genetic engineering. The drama dives headfirst into highly intellectual content, but airs the issues through a supple and surprising domestic drama.

Corthron finds easy entry points for the play’s heady subjects, starting with a reclusive farmer named Erm (Shontelle Thrash). A self-professed science nerd, Erm has encyclopedic facts at her fingertips, like the study of twins who, though raised apart, led strikingly similar lives. But when Erm meets her own long-separated sister, Elo (Minka Wiltz), who visits the farm unexpectedly, their similarities seem only skin-deep. Elo (short for Eloise) is genteel and needy compared to her tough, brusque sister. Before long, Erm eagerly sends Elo on her way, but a convenient rainstorm strands them together.

We gradually catch up with the family’s history. Their mother, Dell (Carol Mitchell-Leon), overwhelmed by newborn twins at age 15, gave Erm to a country neighbor to raise and kept Elo for herself. Erm got the better deal, even though sickle cell anemia struck members of her new family, including her loving adopted sister, Retta (Sandra Benton).

Director Michele Pearce and her cast stay persistently alert to the play’s possibilities for conflict and comedy. Thrash finds plenty of humor as she makes a show of being hospitable to her uninvited guest. Yet Erm isn’t entirely anti-social, and she eagerly gossips and gripes about Elo when Retta visits. Teasing yet protective of each other, Thrash and Benton convey the bond that the adopted sisters have and the blood-siblings lack.

Difficulties with procreation bring crises into the open. Elo lost her daughter, Rosie, in a fatal accident, and could never carry another child to term. Distraught at her infertility, she finds inspiration in one of Erm’s cloning books and resolves to make a copy of her deceased daughter.

Slide never veers into high-tech fantasy. For Corthron, cloning simply proves the most topical facet of the play’s themes about nature and nurture. Acknowledging that human cloning doesn’t exist — yet — Elo and Erm argue not just the ethical issues of playing God but the practical ones: A cloned child will face pressure to live up to the original’s example. In a funny, eerie dream scene, Elo envisions a clone of Rosie (Sharisa Whatley) making a family tree and exclaiming, “Fuck, I forgot that bee-yatch First-Rosie!”

Wiltz makes Elo an amusing, middle-class social butterfly, but she becomes far more fierce in the second act. Fresh disappointments and lingering grievances force Elo to drop her pretenses and reveal her bitter, furious core. Bad blood simmers when Elo brings Erm to meet Dell, whom Mitchell-Leon portrays as both hilarious and monstrous. An abusive, neglectful parent in the past, she has recently found God and become, apparently, even worse, callously making light of her children’s pain. The play’s tension peaks when Elo and Dell confront each other.

Yet Slide doesn’t always go smoothly. Several times the script makes note of the sisters’ physical resemblance, and when Elo first appears at Erm’s kitchen window, they should seem like mirror images. But since Thrash and Wiltz look nothing alike, the audience has to pretend they’re dead ringers. In a pair of short fantasy scenes, a sheep and a teddy bear weigh in on the genetics debates by speaking to the sisters — a funny, playful idea that doesn’t work at all.

The Synchronicity production proves a talky evening, and the script could shed some scientific verbiage without suffering. But the discussions mostly feel natural and not imposed on the characters, like a George Bernard Shaw play set on a 21st-century farm. The play incorporates examples from all over, from the stem cell debate to the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study on unknowing black men.

Corthron never lets her scientific curiosity overwhelm Slide’s emotional center. Instead, her questions play out in her characters’ unusual but credible relationships. If genetic tampering kept Retta from getting sickle cell anemia, would she have grown up as the “real” Retta? Does Erm and Retta’s loving attachment make them more “family” than Erm’s real relatives? As a deeply felt family affair, Slide Glide the Slippery Slope holds up even without the playwright’s cerebral search for the wolf in sheep’s cloning.