Saturday, March 26, 2016

"The How and the Why"

The How and the Why
Sarah Treem

Martha Brigham & Nancy Carlin
First nervously fidgeting, then just staring blankly at her laptop with obvious, undefined anxiety, she sits in an office that has a feel of a holy sanctuary with its church-like window and beautiful cherry-wood floors.  Minutes pass before a young woman with her own look of stressful apprehension gingerly eases through the cracked-open door, only to begin an up-and-down negotiation between the fifty-something and the twenty-something of should they sit or stand before they might actually talk.  So sets the scene between two women of science, specifically of evolutionary biology, both of whom are interested not only in how we evolved as we did, but why the specific evolution took the path it did.  One is an accomplished leader of the field with confident gravitas clearly engraved in her tall, skirt-and-sweater stature.  The other, an aspirant doctoral student, comes in jeans and scarf to meet one of the greats and maybe to solicit her help.  Aurora Theatre Company stages the Bay Area premiere of Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why, a play that gives voice – actually two impassioned voices often in disagreement – to these women scientists who bring their generational differences, their potentially conflicting theories, and their surprisingly overlapping personal crises to a conversation neither is sure she wants to have.  With plot twists that just keep coming and coming, the play is a ride that holds rapt attention of it audience and sends heads spinning as yet one more surprise is revealed.

Zelda is a board member of the National Organization of Research Biologists (aka NORB), winner of its esteemed Dobhzansky award in the study of evolution, and author some thirty years prior (at the age of 28, no less) of the seminal but still controversial “Grandmother Hypothesis” (claiming women have evolutionary advantage in aging due to the need for someone to care for grandchildren, thus the necessity to live beyond menopause).  Rachel has her own theory about menopause (“It came to me in a dream”), that it is a defense women have built up in evolutionary survival against the toxicity of sperm (sperm being like an invading “oil spill” into the “glacial lake” of the female anatomy).  She brings youthful sureness and enthusiasm of “It’s going to change everything, the way women think about their bodies ... the way they have sex.”  Though skeptical, Zelda admires the brave, brash thinking that has possibilities for further development and offers Rachel a spot at the annual NORB’s conference coming up in three days, a spot that Rachel had already been denied by committee.  All of this is discussed in a mixture of deep technical dives as well as pushy probes into personal lives, past associations, and current boyfriends – leading to a number of “This is going badly” outbursts with Rachel bolting for the door and Zelda blocking her exit.

Physically, Nancy Carlin and Martha Brigham as Zelda and Rachel are as far apart as their ages and as-of-yet, earned esteem.  Ms. Carlin brings Bea Arthur masculinity and somewhat bigger-than-life size and confident demeanor.  This is in stark contrast to the a much shorter, often slouching Rachel, whose eyes tend to look down a lot, whose mouth quivers with uptight nerves, and whose sudden jumpiness alternates with complete collapse into a ball in her chair.  Each actress is masterful in developing her character into someone we come to understand and to care about; and though they are often in conflict of differing ideas about everything from professional ethics to love, there is a bond building between them that we see and want deep inside to cheer on to a positive conclusion.  Each is also amazing in her capacity to click off in rapid progression a plethora of scientific terms and explanations and a history of the people (mostly men) in their field on whose ideas they now build and/or destroy with their own theories – all done by each actress without one stumble or any hesitation.

Nancy Carlin & Martha Brigham
The tension of contrasting ideas and mores between a woman priding herself as an old-guard feminist and of a younger woman struggling to decide which is prime for her, success in academia or success in love, is where Sarah Teem’s script particularly sizzles and snaps.  Rachel wants to include her BF and fellow doctoral student Dean (whose academic star seems to be falling just as hers is rising) on the conference podium with her while Zelda keeps asking (and even angrily screaming), “But who wrote the abstract?”  The older Zelda, who admits, “I was once a sexual Magellan ... I was just not very good at monogamy,” now describes love as “stress,” declaring, “I refuse anything so ordinary to define me.”  For Rachel, “Love is magic,” as she comes close to taking a more traditional view of the role of women in relation to men, a view that infuriates the disbelieving Zelda. 

Joy Carlin directs this back-and-forth game being played that is sometimes like a boxing match of wits and wills and at other times like a modern dance where one move is shadowed briefly before a new breakout takes the choreography into a totally new realm.  Never does the pace, intrigue, and/or tension diminish to a point any audience member dares to look away, even when there is just one woman on stage. 

Nancy Carlin & Martha Brigham
While the first act takes place in the office paying homage in its many pictures, souvenirs, and packed bookshelves to Zelda’s honored career, the second occurs in a Boston beer bar more to Rachel’s liking and clearly never a place that Zelda has thought about coming.  Both are created in wonderful detail by Kent Dorsey as scenic and lighting designer and by Devon Labelle as props designer.  Chris Houston adds in sound design the soaring, classical music backdrop appropriate for Zelda’s half and the hard rock, throbbing beats that match Rachel’s location-of-choice.  Christine Dougherty ensures that Zelda has the wardrobe of distinction that a highly regarded professor at a hallowed Boston university would wear and dresses Rachel in all the layers, tight pants, and weird shoes of a twenty-nine-year-old doctoral student with no budget.

If there is fault with The How and Why, it falls not on the shoulders of this exceptional cast and director or this beautifully crafted staging by Aurora Theatre.  In Ms. Treem’s script, there are simply a few too many sudden surprises that conveniently make so many aspects of these two women overlap, mold, and jell in ways, frankly, not to be totally believable.  Having said that, this is fiction, so giving the playwright the full range of poetic license, in the end, Aurora’s The How and Why is quite the place to be for a captivating evening of challenging and heart-warming theatre.

Rating: 4 E

The How and the Why continues through May 22, 2016 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by David Allen

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