A growing number of playwrights grapple with the ethical issues of science and technology. Tom Stoppard was a pioneer, and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen was a memorable exploration of nuclear physics and the responsibilities of scientists. In the Bay Area, Stanford’s Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the Pill, has a minor sideline as a playwright writing about science.
By And By, which debuted at Shotgun Players last week, wrestles with the dilemmas posed by full human cloning. But the compelling twist in Lauren Gunderson’s play is that it focuses on human emotions in a very recognizable world, rather than confecting some science fiction fantasy of the material.
By And By is an intimate drama about a leading scientist and his daughter, who was cloned from his beloved wife, killed in a car accident. It opens with the daughter’s discovery of her origin, which Gunderson handles with both wit and insight.
“It was quite organic,” says Steven, the scientist-father.
“I am not a tomato!” responds Denise, the daughter.
Jennifer Le Blanc, who plays Denise, is particularly strong in the production, directed by Mina Morita.
Berkeleyside spoke to Gunderson about the play and her fascination with science.
“I find science is one of the larger things we can write about,” Gunderson said. “Cloning seemed to me one that has only been done in a sci-fi way, and in a dark, forboding way. The reality is these scientific advancements will be part fascination and technological, but where it’s going to live is inside the human experience. Human relationships haven’t changed for thousands of years, no matter what technology brings us.”
Gunderson’s husband is a biologist, and she said that he helped her think about cloning in a nuanced way, particularly how it might affect relationships.
“We’re looking less at the aha moment and more at the uh oh moment,” she said. “What does it mean for other people. We write about people who take a risk and maybe shouldn’t have done what they did.”
Science is often regarded, Gunderson said, as something technical or abstract, which doesn’t make for “great story or great emotion.”
“I was lucky to have a great physics teacher in high school who taught us about the scientists as well as the science,” she said. “Discoveries are enormously dramatic moments.”
“People presume (new technology) is going to be awful and dangerous, and some people will say it’s evil and an abomination,” Gunderson said. “But often the science that emerges will bring us all sorts of things. We frankly don’t know what will happen.”
On cloning itself, Gunderson said writing the play had convinced her of the potential for the technology.
“I’m pretty excited about this technology,” she said. “What the play is trying to say is it shouldn’t be completely disallowed, but it should be regulated and cared for.”
Shotgun Players’ production of ‘By And By’ runs through June 23 at Ashby Stage. Ticket prices start at $20.
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