Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
There is a lot going on in this two-hander, now receiving its Minnesota premiere by Theatre Unbound, being presented at the New Century Theatre. The How and the Why is a well-written, thoughtful work that might be faulted for covering too much ground, but manages to do justice to its multiple themes. Though it has been called a feministor is it post-feminist?play and Theatre Unbound is dedicated to presenting work by and about women, the over-arching theme is the daunting work it takes for scientists to persevere against established belief and vested interests in order to move the world forward, one step at a time.
The first act is set in the university office of Dr. Zelda Kahn, a noted evolutionary biologist nearing age 60, whose claim to fame came from pioneering "The Grandmother Hypothesis." This theory, which is in fact very real and continues to be debated in scientific circles, explains that menopause evolved in human females, unlike other mammals, in order to attain an older female cohortgrandmotherswith the stamina to care for their children's children without the burden of continuing to give birth to new babies. It allowed human longevity to increase without the likelihood of elder women dying in or soon after childbirth, leaving infants without a maternal caregiver.
Along comes Rachel Hardeman, an NYU graduate student in evolutionary biology, with a theory that counters Zelda's explanation for menopause. Rachel's theory has less to do with child-rearing and extension of longevity, but rather explains the menstrual cycle as a contributor to women's sexual health, allowing for more frequent sex than most animals engage in. Zelda encourages Rachel's thought process, excited by new blood in the field even if it counters her own career-defining work. But there is much more going on between these two women, a past that soon is made known, and that fully colors every moment of their interaction.
The second act takes place a week or so later in a grimy beer joint. Rachel has presented her theory publicly for the first time at a major scientific conference, and Zelda has returned from a hastily called trip to Vienna. Neither Rachel's nor Zelda's ventures went as expected. Their professional and personal dilemmas fuel fierce arguments as they seek a path toward moving forward in both aspects of their lives.
In order to avoid spoilers, I left out things that might make the synopsis above a bit easier to follow, but as written by Sarah Treem, everything comes to make sense. Her skill as a playwright is in not setting out all of the exposition at the front end, but providing enough to whet our appetite, then as what we know is kneaded and leavened, adding another ingredient to the batter. Perhaps the mix becomes overly rich with one too many issues tossed in to a sufficiently full bowl. Even so, the various elements all blend together in a satisfying way. At the end, I wanted to know what Rachel and Zelda each would do next, and then after that ... the sign of strong and engaging drama.
Shelli Place's direction maintains interest throughout the two acts, which both consist mainly of talking. This may be talk, but it is talk ignited by passions and fears, and every word is made to matter. There are moments when the conversation delves into scientific work that, frankly, is far from my wheelhouse, but I hung on because it was evident that more than science was at stake for Zelda and Rachel.
Caroline Kaiser as Zelda and Molly Pach as Rachel both deliver excellent performances. Kaiser places Zelda firmly in the academic realm, with concerns about conference papers, student advisees, and peer review. She is highly articulate and poised, and adept at swallowing an emotional response and replace it with an intellectual rejoinder, and a bit self-referential. Pach imbues Rachel with a swirl of contradicting emotional settings: vulnerable and headstrong, need and defiant, romantic and clinical. These two play extraordinarily well off of each other, their performances making any gaps in the play feel like the natural gaps that occur when two people enter each other's worlds.
The tone is set with walk-in music from the 1970s and '80s that champion women's freedom and question the primacy of love in a woman's life, such as "What's Love Got to Do with It?", "I Will Survive," "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," and of course, Helen Reddy's anthem "I Am Woman." Lin Mathison's sets are more detailed than usual on the New Century's small stage. Zelda's professors office is true to life, art from indigenous cultures on the walls and shelves laden with monographs and binders, rather than books. The campus environment is affirmed with the periodic chiming of a bell tower. The details in the act two set create the ambiance of a place well-bred grad students might hang out to give their cloistered lives a bit of a wild side.
The How and the Whyis a solid play that provides food for thought with an emotional payoff. The current production by Theatre Unbound seems to have brought out all the right tones and colors in the work. It is well worth seeing, whether one is interested in the crossfire that accompanies scientific research, changing expectations of and among woman in science, or simply enjoy a well written, movingly played drama.
The How and the Why is a Theatre Unbound production presented by Hennepin Theatre Trust. It continues through March 20, 2016, at the New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $17.00 - $19.00, students with valid ID: $10.00. For tickets and information call 612-455-9525 or go to theatreunbound.com/.
Writer: Sarah Treem; Director: Shelli Place; Set Design: Lin Mathison; John Leahy; Sound Designer: Anita Kelling; Stage Manager: Samson Perry.
Cast: Caroline Kaiser (Zelda Kahn), Molly Pach (Rachel Hardeman).