Evolutionary biology and contemporary theater are not obvious bedfellows. Even for life science enthusiasts, the idea that two women should spend the entirety of a two-act play discussing the intricacies of the female reproductive system is, to say the least, unexpected. But it works in “The How and the Why,” the Trinity Repertory Company’s latest production.
The new play by Sara Treem seamlessly blends the intellectual and the emotional for a fast, witty and richly textured piece of theater. The work does for reproductive biology and human evolution what David Auburn’s “Proof” did for mathematics, approaching academia with a liveliness and intensity that allows the actors to explore much larger meanings. Trinity’s production of the new play, directed by Shana Gozansky MFA’12, is both challenging and thought-provoking.
The play is essentially an extended dialogue between two scientists whose theories and personalities collide in unexpected and revealing ways. Zelda Kahn (Anne Scurria) is a tenured professor and a legend in her field, and Rachel Hardeman (Barrie Kreinik MFA’13) is a young graduate student with a radical hypothesis and a tenacious personality.
They have each come up with a theory about the female role in evolution that shakes the scientific community. Zelda’s prize winning thesis, the so-called “Grandmother Hypothesis,” proposes that post-menopausal women ensured the survival of the human race by gathering food for their pregnant daughters and their families. Rachel’s theory suggests that menstruation evolved as a mechanism to protect against the toxicity of sperm and the viruses and bacteria they bring along for the ride. Treem spares no jargon, and the audience is expected to keep up.
“We wanted to make sure that the academic content did something personally for these two women, that it was working on them emotionally and not simply lecturing the audience about their ideas,” Gozansky said.
As the two characters volley ideas back and forth, they comment on the thrill of discovery, the phasing out of old ideas with new interpretations and the competitive and sometimes combative nature of research science.
Their two-hour sparring session is both verbal Ping-Pong and an intimate tete-a-tete between two women whose relationship runs much deeper than that of a mentor and mentee. Treem’s dialogue is sharp and rhythmic, helped along by precise execution on the part of Scurria and Kreinik. A few wry gems are instantly quotable: “Basically love is the Stockholm Syndrome gussied up,” quips Zelda at one point.
“I think if it were just a play about meeting one’s biological mother or just a play about two scientists with conflicting theories it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and complex,” Kreinik said. “The academic and personal content … bump up against each other in a very electric way.”
The pedagogical relationship between Kreinik and Scurria goes beyond the stage. Both Kreinik and Gozansky were Scurria’s students in the Brown/Trinity MFA program. Having this shared vocabulary enriched the rehearsal process, the actors said.
“It was really fascinating and terrific because when we first came in, obviously the only relationship we had was teacher-student, and so we had to work through to get to the place where we both trusted that we were reacting as peers, that there was not any teaching happening,” Scurria said.
Set design by Tilly Grimes and lighting design by Driscoll Otto help to provide some welcome visual variety between acts. The show opens on a no-frills office space, sparsely decorated and illuminated with clinical, fluorescent overheads, like a petri dish in a laboratory – everything, even Zelda’s pantsuit, is a different shade of grey. At intermission, the crew slides the far wall backward to enlarge the space, transforming a cramped office into a colorful, but strangely empty, bar.
“We decided to keep the office small, too small for the enormity of the emotional event so that they had to fight for space,” Gozansky said. “In act two, we wanted to strand them in an expanse but keep them stuck at a table – a space that is too big for the intimacy they are working towards.”
Deprived of many set, costume and lighting changes, the audience focuses their attention on two actors twisting language and the exploration of human relationships.
“There’s nowhere to hide on stage. We don’t get breaks. It’s basically one long conversation and then another long conversation, so once it gets going, it’s going,” Kreinik said.
The audience cannot help but go along with them. What begins as a conversation about science and the body telescopes into a provocative meditation on age and wisdom, men and women, love and loss.
“The How and the Why” runs through Dec. 30 in Trinity’s Sarah and Joseph Dowling Jr. Theater.