A central question for any two character play is whether the playwright can keep the audience interested. Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why succeeds through an intelligent blend of personal, political, and intellectual conflicts in an absorbing new production at 1st Stage.
The two characters are an established senior faculty member named Zelda Kahn and an up and coming graduate student named Rachel Hardeman. Both are scientists in the field of evolutionary biology, a discipline which tries to explain how human biology evolved by determining why those changes were evolutionarily useful. Both have other connections as well which are revealed during the course of the play.
The two women could not be more different on a personal level. Zelda is a confident, accomplished woman who has largely opted to put her career first. Rachel is a hostile, defensive young woman who is trying to balance her career and a relationship with a less accomplished fellow graduate student in her department.
The two meet for the first time when Rachel visits on the eve of a major scientific conference that Zelda helps run. Rachel was initially rejected for the conference, but Zelda becomes her champion when Rachel describes an intriguing theory on the value of female menstruation which actually runs counter to the theory that made Zelda’s career.
The play is a vehicle for describing how two different generations of female scientists could decide to balance feminist concerns and career goals, as well as topics such as nature versus biological destiny. Yet the two women are fully drawn characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies and warts.
Both Liz Pierotti as Zelda and Nora Achrati as Rachel give masterful performances. When meeting Rachel for the first time, Zelda responds to Rachel’s initial curiosity with “The way I see it, your areas of curiosity must be divisible into the historical, the biological, and the psychological.” It’s a hard line to pull off, but Pierotti’s low-key and logical manner that makes it work.
Similarly, Achrati takes a character that borders on unlikeable yet makes her understandable. Her Rachel may be 28, but, at heart, she’s a precocious and awkward teenager. You sense that she is lonely, making her commitment to her boyfriend understandable, even to the point of potentially sacrificing her own career interests on his behalf.
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner does a fine job pacing the drama. She maneuvers the two women’s initial difficulties sharply, but then helps the two women evidence a growing admiration for each other even in spite of their own personal conflicts.
The script does have a surplus of coincidences and contrivances, and the second act sags a little. Yet Sarah Treem knows how to handle meaningful dialogue with economy and purpose, as demonstrated by her award-winning work on HBO’s “In Treatment” series. At times she can also inject welcome wit and humor, such as Zelda’s biological explanation for sexual attraction. Treem also carefully plants the small details that make the story’s plot turns and revelations plausible.
Moreover, the intellectual arguments are unusually interesting and involving, sometimes even more so than the soggier emotional developments. The mix of the intellectual and the personal brings to mind such plays as David Auburn’s Proof and Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, while the focus on obstacles women scientists face is reminiscent of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51.
The production elements are also handled well. Richard Montgomery’s sets, the professor’s office in the first act and the college bar in the second, are convincing and appropriately detailed.
Theatre is the best medium for handling two character dramas and for combining the drama of ideas with personal drama. The 1st Stage production of Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why is solid proof of that thesis.
The How and the Why runs thru Nov 20, 2011 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd, Tysons Corner, VA.
The How and the Why
Written by Sarah Treem
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 2 hours (one intermission)
- David Siegel . Connection