Photo by Deb Crerie/Courtesy of 1st Stage
An intellectual drama of two scientists at odds
By Celia Wren
Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011
There can't be too many plays whose stories unspool both in a Harvard professor's office and in a dive bar. That combination of settings says something about the intellectual and tonal range of "The How and the Why," the absorbing and brainy drama now on view in a compelling production from Northern Virginia's 1st Stage. A tale of two female scientists caught in a knotty personal relationship, Sarah Treem's play brims with ideas and emotional colors that eddy and refract like rivulets in a lively, plunging stream. The play's title may be so abstract as to be listless, but the work is not.
Premiered in January at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., and artfully directed for 1st Stage by Lee Mikeska Gardner, "The How and the Why" depicts two meetings between Zelda (Liz Pierotti), an acclaimed 56-year-old evolutionary biologist at Harvard, and Rachel (Nora Achrati), an ambitious graduate student in the same field. Each woman is a visionary who takes a contrarian approach in a discipline dominated by male-skewed thinking. Zelda made her name with the "grandmother hypothesis," which argued that older women were key players in the development of homo sapiens. Rachel's fledgling theory casts menstruation in a provocative new light. The two conjectures may be mutually incompatible - and that's just one of the impediments to understanding between the scholars, who are cynical and idealistic, brash and insecure, each in her own way.
In summary, the scenario might sound overly neat, and "The How and the Why" does display a craftedness in keeping with the 31-year-old Treem's track record as a writer and producer of HBO's"In Treatment." Fortunately, the craft here makes the story of Zelda and Rachel seem real, tense and surprising, even as the play's swirl of thought - particularly related to the notions of competitiveness, sacrifice and survival, on a Darwinian level and in daily life - gives you the sensation of living in a world of intellectual ferment, as the characters do. When one of the scientists comes up with a great quip - "Love is the Stockholm syndrome, gussied up," the unmarried Zelda says dismissively at one point - it seems to be her native smarts coming out.
Gardner's talented actors make the characters full-blooded presences, with layers of confidence, drive, loneliness and fear. Pierotti does a particularly nice job conveying Zelda's inner strength and slow-to-thaw social reserve. Achrati, a master of the hard-eyed expression, makes it clear that Rachel's arrogance and prickliness mask a welter of vulnerabilities.
It is the younger, hipper Rachel, of course, who selects the grungy bar as a meeting place. The watering hole is aptly rendered by set designer Richard Montgomery as a depressing basement whose grubby black walls are plastered with dog-eared notices for obscure bands - a far cry from Zelda's genteel office, with its bookshelves, window seat and Persian carpet. The contrasting milieus drive home how far the characters in "The How and the Why" travel, emotionally and psychologically. Gardner's production makes it rewarding to travel with them.