Vol. LXV, No. 3
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Sarah Treem describes what she learned from Emily Mann’s Still Life (1980) in creating her own play, The How and the Why, currently running at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre in a world premiere production directed by Ms. Mann: “You put people in a room who have very good reasons to be furious at each other and you don’t let them leave. That’s how you create dramatic tension. The How and the Why is somewhat based on that principle.”
Ms. Treem’s two-character drama thrives on that theory, pitting her antagonists against each other in a Harvard professor’s office in the first act, then in a bar in act two. A distinguished professor of evolutionary biology confronts for the first time her angry 28-year-old daughter, an NYU graduate student in the same field as the mother who had put her up for adoption 28 years earlier.
The conflict rages. The two brilliant, cynical, ambitious, uncompromising scholars realize their battleground is the field of evolutionary biology, as well as the personal relationship between a mother who gave up her daughter for her career and a young woman ready to deliver to the world of science her revolutionary new theory on menstruation.
The play is about women, groundbreakers in the women’s movement that began almost fifty years ago, and their daughters. It is about the impossible career choices and family choices forced upon both. It is also a play about science, evolutionary biology, power, and the survival of the fittest.
The emotion-charged back-and-forth — the play lasts two hours including intermission — never flags. The renowned Mercedes Ruehl, Oscar winner (The Fisher King) and Tony Award winner (Lost in Yonkers) creates a tough, funny, often surprising, multi-dimensional Zelda. This eminent professor has risen to the top of the male-dominated field of science, but she faces daunting personal struggles with the sudden appearance of her abandoned daughter.
Sarah Treems The How and the Why will run through February 13 at McCarters Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org for more information.
Bess Rous, New Jersey native and graduate of Mason Gross, with off-Broadway credits and recurring TV roles on Mad Men and Gossip Girl, establishes the character of Rachel with a sharp edge and seemingly limitless self-confidence in squaring off against her formidable professor-mother.
The dialogue, full of personal and scientific data intertwined on both sides, is rapid, interesting — for its intellectual content, its social commentary as the older generation battles with its offspring, and for the personal plight of estranged mother and daughter feeling their way onwards through mistrust, bitterness, and rivalry towards some kind of relationship.
The play takes place in late fall of the present, just before and just after an important conference of the National Organization of Research Biologists (“It’s like the Olympics of Biology”). Rachel, it turns out, has applied and been rejected as a presenter at the conference. Zelda can intervene to offer Rachel a chance to present her revolutionary theory on menstruation as a defense against the toxicity of sperm.
What motivated Rachel to find her mother after 28 years? The pent up bitterness of a daughter rejected by her mother? The anger of a brilliant young scholar shut out from a prime opportunity to advance her new hypothesis and her career? Ambition? Curiosity? A search for something missing, something more fundamental in her life?
These and other troubling questions arise, but remain unanswered. (Zelda never really explains or tries to justify her decision to put her daughter up for adoption. Rachel never lets down her defenses enough to reveal what it is she really wants from her mother-professor.) Ms. Treem’s strategy of getting these adversaries into the same room — twice — then not letting them leave works to bring out a rich panoply of issues — scientific, social and human, but it does require occasional strains on the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Those strains, however, never undermine the high entertainment value — intellectual and emotional — of this show.
Ms. Ruehl embodies with authority and detailed verisimilitude the middle-aged Harvard professor who at age 29 won the prestigious Dobzhansky Prize for her theory on the evolutionary benefits in menopause and has stayed at the top of her field ever since. Focused, dedicated, she exudes power and competence as she sits behind her huge office desk in the opening moments. Ms. Ruehl is thoroughly engaging and convincing throughout, as Zelda’s assurance turns to an agitated awkwardness, guilt, uncertainty — but not without humor — in entering the unfamiliar turf of emotional conflict and the complications of a mother-daughter relationship.
Ms. Rous’s Rachel is a striking contrast to her mother, not just in age, but in attitude, experience, appearance, and world view. She dresses informally, none of Zelda’s pants suits for her. She’s an outsider in her mother’s world of academic elitism, and, from the opening moments of the play as she enters Zelda’s office, she takes on both the agonized uneasiness of an outsider and the supreme arrogance of the young rebel, determined to assert her right to be heard, to make her mark, to address the shortcomings of her predecessors.
She is a formidable presence, but even when Rachel’s supremely self-confident veneer breaks down in the post-conference meeting with her mother in a bar in the second act, this character is less multi-dimensional, less rich and less interesting in many ways than the characterization of Zelda. Somewhat surprisingly, this creation of the 30-year-old playwright is less sympathetic, much more difficult to warm up to than the character of the fifty-six-year-old mother. The mostly middle-aged (and beyond) audience at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre last Saturday night naturally found a more ready affinity for Zelda, and the script, not to mention Ms. Ruehl’s powerful stage presence and charisma, further contributed to that imbalance.
Daniel Ostling’s vibrantly realistic sets — Zelda’s magisterial, book-filled office, finely wrought in all details of professorship and prestige in act one, and the lonely Boston bar in act two — along with Stephen Strawbridge’s finely tuned lighting, strikingly create the world that these women inhabit.
The How and the Why may not be the first nor the last play you’ll see portraying the irreconcilable conflict between that powerful generation of the baby boomers and their offspring, but it is difficult to imagine a play more rich in ideas or a play where the conflict is more thoughtfully embodied than it is here in Sarah Treem’s two passionate, gifted women, so richly, imaginatively and lovingly characterized by Ms. Ruehl and Ms. Rous, under the sure-handed, intelligent, carefully paced direction of Ms. Mann.
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