It is worth your time watching Shakespeare & Company’s two fine actresses come to an understanding that is cathartic and real.
The How and Why by Sarah Treem. Directed by Niccole Ricciardi. Staged by Shakespeare & Company in the Elayne Bernstein Theater, Lenox, MA, through July 26th.
By Roberta Silman
Sarah Treem, the playwright of The How and Why, has made a reputation as a writer for TV, particularly for the hits In Treatment and House of Cards, and she clearly has a good feel for drama. First performed in Manhattan in 2011, this multi-layered script makes for a worthwhile evening of theater at Shakespeare & Co. mostly because of the superb acting of Tod Randolph and Bridget Saracino. Treem raises a number of intriguing questions — about ambition, the lure of research, how to interpret scientific theory, adoption, and the mother-daughter relationship when all the cards are stacked against it — but her play is not quite fully thought out, not quite a work of art.
The play begins with the young scientist, Rachel (Saracino), entering the office of her birth mother, Zelda (Randolph), who is an evolutionary biologist and an icon in her field of reproductive research. The impulse for this set-up came from Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography, a volume that examines theories on menstruation proffered by the biologist Maggie Profet and the anthropologist Kristen Hawkes. The book’s clashing ideas are a witty construct for the play’s deeper theme — how a woman who has given birth to a child decides to give it up for adoption. Rachel is promulgating the controversial theory that menstruation developed as defensive extension of the immune system, a means to ward off the invasion of sperm. She discovers that the person whose established ideas she is about to upend is Zelda.
How this young woman ended up in her mother’s somewhat narrow field is never really explained, although it is implied that genes may have created the convenient coincidence. Still, Treem has set up a tense situation, to say the least. However, during the first act the conflict’s potential power is undercut: by the clutter of scientific jargon (causing glazed eyes on the part of most of the men in the audience) and by Rachel’s anger, which sometimes, inexplicably, gives way to fierce crying. The emoting makes it hard to get a firm handle on just what is really going on.
Treem has been quoted as saying (see Helen Epstein’s preview in The Arts Fuse) that it is possible, even desirable, “to make a play by putting two people who have good reasons to be furious with each other in the same room and not let them leave.” But it is not so easy. Rachel’s anger is mixed up with ambition and personal perplexity to the point of bewilderment, hers and ours. Her desire to make a splash at an upcoming conference and raise questions about Zelda’s research clashes with her loyalty to her lover, Dean, her deep desire to marry and have children, as well as her almost sadistic wish to hurt Zelda personally. At times her responses seem unbelievably adolescent, veering towards the creepy in their confusion. Whether this messiness is due to the writing or the direction was hard to tell. So, given this near caricature of an opponent, Zelda has to somehow keep things at a rational level as she prepares to answer the questions she knows are coming from Rachel, the how and why: How did I come into existence? Who was my biological father? And why did you give me away?
The second act addresses those issues, and the characters become rounder, more understandable, the scientific material more accessible. The themes of career versus love, which could seem old in these post-Feminist times, somehow become new. We see Zelda and Rachel struggling to reach a place where they can really connect and in the end we are moved by their struggle. Not because Zelda reveals that she is sick — which I and others may feel to be a cheap trick — but because Zelda has confronted what she did and realized that she may have been wrong, that her need to succeed may not have led to the life it was cracked up to be, in the end.
Young women of today have more choices. It is not unheard of for a woman of great accomplishments to bring up a baby on her own in the 21st century. But almost 30 years ago, when Zelda was faced with the dilemma of finding herself pregnant, the choices were narrower. Yet as we see Zelda facing her past, we also see her slowly comprehending that she fell into a trap of her own making. Moreover, as she reveals that Rachel’s birth created complications leading to a hysterectomy and her inability to have more children, we see her tapping into a part of herself that has been so long repressed she hardly knows how to handle it. Thus, both of these women are stripped bare, mourning for what could not be, and that is what gives the play its emotional resonance.
Where Treem has not quite melded the scientific theory and the human element is the way “The Grandmother Hypothesis” hovers over the play. This comes from Hawkes’s research among the Hadza in Tanzania, which shows the evolutionary benefit derived from postmenopausal women in pre-historic communities, how the way they cared for their older grandchildren allowed those grandchildren “to remain dependent longer, allowing their brains to develop complexity, and the entire gene pool to adapt toward longevity.” If she had thought more deeply about these two characters, Treem might have seen that Zelda has a real place in Rachel’s future, and the play might have had a more hopeful trajectory, its science providing an even more meaningful metaphor for living a meaningful life. But this is Treem’s play, not mine, and even in its present form it is worth your time watching these two fine actresses come to an understanding that is cathartic and real.
Roberta Silman Her three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again have just been released by Open Road Distribution and can be purchased as ebooks at Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Google Play. She has also written short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.