Theater Preview: “The How and the Why” — Fiercely Intelligent Women in Conflict

“I was/am struck by the women in The How and the Why. I hadn’t seen them onstage before. Nor had I quite heard from them before.”

The How and the Why by Sarah Treem. Staged by Shakespeare & Company in the Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA, through July 26.

(l to r) in rehearsal for the Shakespeare & Company production of "The How and The Why."

(l to r) Bridget Saracino and Tod Randolph in rehearsal for the Shakespeare & Company production of “The How and the Why.” Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare & Company,

By Helen Epstein

Dramatist Sarah Treem once told an interviewer that for a good play, “you put people in a room who have very good reasons to be furious at each other and you don’t let them leave. The How and the Why is somewhat based on that principle.”

The two people in The How and the Why who have good reason to be furious at each other are a pair of fiercely intelligent women scientists, each wedded to an opposing theory. Treem drew on Natalie Angier’s book Woman: An Intimate Geography for the theories: “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and “The Toxicity of Sperm.” Their incompatibility, as well as Treem’s creation of an initially mysterious emotional tension between the two women, propel The How and the Why.

For those who haven’t yet heard of Treem, she is the very gifted and prolific writer/producer of the wildly successful TV dramas House of Cards, In Treatment, and The Affair, as well as eight plays. The How and the Why premiered at the McCarter Theater in 2010, and has had several productions, including one at Cambridge’s Nora Theatre Company in 2012. Shakespeare & Company’s staging, directed by Nicole Ricciardi, features two actors who mirror their roles. Shakespeare & Company veteran Tod Randolph has built a devoted following in Lenox over 18 years; Bridget Saracino is a newcomer.

Ricciardi is one of the many viewers who obsessively watched Treem’s The Affair on Showtime last fall. “I went out and bought all of her plays,” she recalls. “I was reading her work in late January when Ariel Bock got in touch to gauge my interest in directing The How and the Why. The script was sitting inches from me on my desk. I had just read and loved it. I was/am struck by the women. I hadn’t seen them onstage before. Nor had I quite heard from them before.”

Saracino, who plays the younger scientist, had both seen and read The How and the Why before receiving her MFA at the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Co. acting program in 2014. She had watched House of Cards and In Treatment and, like Ricciardi, admired Treem’s writing. “Her characters are so very complex and flawed and human, really deep. I remember thinking, ‘damn, those are some powerful women’.”

Tod Randolph had never heard of the script or the playwright but liked it as soon as she read it. “Delving into this play,” she explains, “has been a process of discovering secrets, gleaning bits of information from brief and cryptic remarks made in passing, mining for truth and lies the stories the characters tell about themselves, putting together all the little details to create the larger picture of the history between these two women, their careers, their relationships… it’s been a fascinating and very satisfying process.”

Her character, established scientist Zelda, “is in some ways quite different from other parts I’ve played. She’s an academic, a rationalist, an ‘observational empiricist,’ who has chosen to devote her time to her scientific vocation to the exclusion of family relationships, and found immense satisfaction on that path. She’s not a drama queen, and she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve  — all of which is turning out to be a lot of fun to play.”

The director adds: “At first glance, this is not an easy play. It’s two women, locked in a room, hashing things out. So, at first, I was worried. How do I make it interesting? How do I continually hold the audience’s interest? But Ms. Treem is a brilliant writer. Both the plot and the characters are multi-layered. The characters are lying to themselves and to one another a great deal of the time. Secrets are revealed slowly. Just when I thought I had a handle on things, when I thought I knew something for certain, I was almost immediately proven wrong. This happened over and over again throughout the rehearsal process.”

Playwright Sarah Treem

Playwright Sarah Treem.

“It was frustrating at first,” Ricciardi continues, “and then it became fun, like working on a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing. What would the picture look like when we were done? At some point, I had to let go and trust that if the actors knew what they wanted and what they were after in each moment of the play, the rest would take care of itself. And this has proven very true. Good writing is good writing.”

All three collaborators read Woman: an Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier. None had an extensive science background. All three had to research what each term in the two elaborate hypotheses meant, and what each theory proposed (while the characters are fictional, their scientific theories are based on the work of real-life biologist Margie Profet and anthropologist Kristen Hawkes).

“I couldn’t actually memorize anything until I knew what the words meant,” says Saracino. “It just wouldn’t stick in my head! With a character like this, who really knows her stuff, I felt that as an actor I have to know it too, so that I can convey it to the audience.”

The result (seen in a preview performance) is an unusual and unusually cogent play that entertains as it informs and feels much shorter than its running time of one hour and 45 minutes.

Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and five other books of non-fiction, now available as ebooks from Plunkett Lake Press.

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