Review: THE HOW AND THE WHY

February 22, 2011

I wanted to post this review of THE HOW AND THE WHY after we saw it, but after reading it, I felt that it might cause people not to go see the play. New plays need audiences, especially during talkbacks and the like, so I decided to hold back on the posting. Unfortunately, life got in the way, and I am very late in getting it on the blog. In any event, these are my views of this new play and the recent McCarter Theatre production.

     Two women faced many unanswered challenges in Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center’s world premier production of Sarah Treem’s THE HOW AND THE WHY in their intimate Berlind Theatre which ran through February 13. The main difficulty facing this script is that there is more “how” than “why,” and the unanswered questions overwhelm the situation. It is not a bad play, and it offers a great deal of information and impetus for discussion; however, it simply does not offer the audience any kind of cohesive sense regarding why it happened.
     This two-hander featuring Mercedes Ruehl as Zelda and Bess Rous as Rachel Hardeman begins with the extremely uncomfortable first meeting of a mother and daughter twenty-eight years after the mother gave the daughter up for adoption. Rachel has become an evolutionary biologist like her mother and the man by whom she was impregnated – he never knew about Rachel. Coincidences multiply rapidly as the two women talk, and it is revealed that they both developed theories concerning menstruation in humans. Zelda’s theory, which came when she was twenty-seven, is based on an actual 1957 theory by George C. Williams called the Grandmother Hypothesis which outlines that women go through menopause in order to become caregivers in the community and ensure its continuation.
     Rachel’s theory in the play is based on the 1993 theory by Margie Profet which contends that menstruation is a woman’s body’s defense against “pathogens transported by sperm.” In other words, a woman cleanses herself against the onslaught of germs carried by sperm in order to survive. Shortly after Rachel and Zelda discuss this near the opening of the play, the first “why” question begins to form. Why, if Rachel’s theory deals with the concept that a woman’s body is repelling germs introduced by a man and is, in a sense, protecting itself from that man, does Rachel’s character sublimate herself to a man, her boyfriend Dean who is also an evolutionary biologist, and is willing to give him half of the credit for this discovery so that she can keep him?
     The insight that could have come from the discussion between these two women as to why the woman who developed the theory regarding nurturing gave up her child and never married and the woman who looks at menstruation as a defense against the invasion of men seems desperate to keep one would have been so much more interesting than some of what is discussed but never answered here. The psychology which would have given these two characters so many more shades of meaning is sadly never approached.
     Zelda gave up Rachel when Rachel was six days old. No reason was given. It is intimated by Rachel that Zelda put her career first, and, I suppose, that a lack of denial from Zelda is supposed to stand as affirmation. However, there is so much missing from this back story. Zelda was twenty-eight, unmarried, and because of complications with the birth, had to have a hysterectomy – which also seems coincidental – so she might not have felt that she could keep Rachel. She might have felt that she was not the right mother. The audience never knows. No, it is not necessary for all questions to be answered because life does not offer answers for everything, but it does offer answers for some things. Zelda knows why she gave up Rachel. Couldn’t the audience?
     Rachel appears in Zelda’s life a short while before a major conference is to occur at the college where Zelda teaches. In fact, Zelda is on the board of the conference to which Rachel applied but was not accepted. Rachel tells Zelda that she “called” the adoption agency and found out who Zelda was which seems highly unlikely, possible, but unlikely, and all of this occurred after Rachel was rejected from the conference. Did Rachel know who Zelda was and only now chose to find her for her own gain? Rachel is filled with anger towards the woman whom she says “gave her birth” but is not her mother, and their meetings are terse with Rachel being highly uncommunicative except about her theory. Also regarding Rachel’s theory, it was supposedly championed by a former student of Zelda’s who then attacks Rachel when she delivers her paper. Was it championed so that this third woman could also make a case for her theory which has something to do with menstruation in other animals such as chimpanzees?
     One last why, although there are several others, is why Zelda worked to get Rachel a conveniently vacant spot in the conference. Zelda seems neither happy nor upset with Rachel’s arrival. Could this, however, be Zelda’s way of punishing Rachel for ferreting her out after twenty-eight years? Zelda sees some possible problems within Rachel’s theory and briefly mentions them but does not stress Rachel’s need to address them. Rachel does not, of course, and she suffers from the attack as a result. Rachel loses Dean because Zelda tells her to deliver her theory alone, and Rachel believes she has been ridiculed by the conference attendees. She is demoralized, but Zelda does not seem to mind.
     Treem seems to be trying to use the biology the way Tom Stoppard has used math, science, and physics in plays such as ARCADIA and JUMPERS. They are similar here in that the biology seems to be the reason for this reconnection and all that follows. However, the characters are not realized deeply enough to be able to fully understand them. Even their basic motivations seem shrouded in too much mystery. It’s difficult to root for a character one doesn’t know or fully understand. Rachel just seems to be a miserable woman who never matured. Zelda is a true cipher who seems, at times, to enjoy manipulating Rachel only to offer caring advice. Which is it?
Rous does a creditable job with Rachel. She does look for levels and variety in the character which is mostly written to skulk around the stage in fits of pique. Rous does work to make her vulnerable and agreeable at times. On opening night, Ruehl seemed a bit unfocused and often had to struggle for lines, so it was difficult to tell what her motivations were. Perhaps those motivations and some of my whys were cleared up when Ruehl became more comfortable with the role. As it is, the pacing of the evening lurches as Ruehl works to retrieve a line. She does, however, have some excellent moments which seem to center around some of Treem’s more “Neil Simon-esque” lines.
     The star of the evening is the set by Daniel Ostling. The first act set of a university office, not unlike Princeton’s in feel, is extremely well detailed and beautifully realistic as is the second act “seedy bar” set that even includes cluttered tables and mismatched furniture.
     Is THE HOW AND THE WHY a bad play? No, definitely not. There are many positives in this evening that still make it interesting. It is, however, a play that needs development and focus. For some in the audience on opening night, it was a thought-provoking exercise. For others, it was “tedious” and “un-eventful.” I found it interesting and filled with promise which it doesn’t quite deliver – yet.

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