Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Sarah Treem’s terrific new play, in a beautiful production directed by Emily Mann at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, is that it’s a two-hander for women in which no one kills themselves. Performed with commitment, humor, and nuance by Mercedes Ruehl and Bess Rous, The How and the Why is actually a play of ideas.

Much of the dialogue addresses competing philosophies about the evolution of women’s reproductive systems. To hear two women scientists of two different generations, both clearly brilliant, parse out their concepts and compare notes on what it means to do research about womenas women is a distinct pleasure. My evening at McCarter reminded me how rarely women’s ideas, spoken by fully formed, complex female characters, are heard on stage.

To reveal that Rachel Hardeman (Rous) is the 28-year-old daughter that Zelda Kahn (Ruehl) gave up for adoption when Rachel was born isn’t to spoil a major plot point. Although their relationship is clarified gradually in the first few scenes, their mutual awkwardness quickly tips off the audience that this is the meeting of a daughter given up by the woman who gave birth to her.

Rachel, whose initiative prompted their meeting, displays a volatile mix of hostility and guarded curiosity, while Zelda tries to contain her excitement and interest in the young woman. But because she’s a scientist, Zelda approaches their first-ever conversation with efficient reasonableness, proposing that Rachel’s questions must fall into categories like the biological and the psychological, as well as the personal.

Rachel, however, has a more complicated agenda, and she isn’t easily maneuvered by Zelda’s power and authority. Although they meet on Zelda’s turf, in the spacious, wood-lined office of the university where she’s a distinguished evolutionary biology professor, Rachel’s ambitions keep her moving into and out of Zelda’s range, as the two women get to know one another by sparring over their work.

Zelda’s career was secured by a theory she calls the Grandmother Hypothesis, which suggests that women live longer than men because in primitive cultures, women were constantly pregnant, and could never have provided their growing young children enough nourishment without another adult woman caretaker (who wasn’t continuously pregnant) lending a hand.

Rachel’s nascent career depends on her own theory about women and reproduction, which proposes that women menstruate not to flush away the uterus’s unused reproductive apparatus each month but because male sperm is toxic and creates a bacterial environment that needs to be cleansed. (Both theories are, apparently, real; Treem, a lead writer for HBO’s In Treatment, mentions in the program notes that she discovered them in Natalie Angier’s book, Woman: An Intimate Geography.)

Although Rachel resents Zelda’s abandonment, she can’t help but envy the older woman’s access to the very circles of power that Rachel longs to join. When Zelda offers her an open spot at a major conference from which Rachel was initially rejected, Rachel jumps at the chance, but with one twisted condition that sets out the play’s major sub-theme. Her boyfriend, Dean, who’s also an evolutionary biologist, must present the paper with her, ostensibly because they share their research.

Rachel’s wrong-headed impulse becomes the occasion for Treem to explore two very different generations of women’s relationship to feminism and its capacity for describing and defining not just their professional but also their personal lives. Zelda has never married; her work, she insists, has been more than enough. Rachel sees this as a personal sacrifice she finds anathema. Her adoptive parents recently died, and Dean is the only person to whom she’s emotionally connected.

Even though the couple’s professional competition is lopsided—Rachel is clearly the more talented researcher, with a post-doc waiting when she graduates and an NIH award already in hand—Rachel thinks she should put Dean’s career first. Because they talk through their work together, she also thinks she owes him the shared conference spot. The idea drives Zelda wild, because from her perspective, Rachel’s choice makes her subservient to a man, deferring her own career options to bolster his.

To Treem’s credit, the opinions on both sides, throughout this very argumentative play, are thoroughly persuasive, so that the deck isn’t obviously stacked in either woman’s favor. Since I am closer to Zelda’s generation of white American feminists in their mid- to late-50s, her arguments sounded familiar and reasonable. And as someone who takes great pleasure in my own work, I could understand Zelda’s commitment to her hypothesis and her research. But I can imagine people aligning themselves in numerous ways with the arguments advanced by both women.

For instance, Rachel, on the other hand, archly suggests that a stellar career isn’t worth it if you’re alone in your life (something—I would submit—people rarely suggest is the case for men). She presumes that Zelda is lonely, but Zelda corrects her, and thankfully, again, Treem doesn’t fall into the clichéd trap of punishing Zelda for her own professional choices. In fact, Rachel envies Zelda’s example, since even though she’s not yet thirty, Rachel already feels she’s too old to be the wunderkind she wants to be. She longs to make her mark in the scientific community, and clearly sees Zelda as a professional role model.

But Rachel’s ambivalence, too, has weight and makes sense. When is dedication to your work too much, even when that work can have revolutionary consequences? How do we measure the success or failure of our lives, when we’re trying to reinvent them, and the possibilities for women, especially, to make new choices? The play is sympathetic to both women’s perspectives, and lets the audience carefully contemplate what might be gained or lost from our own viewpoints and investments.

Treem refuses to moralize against either character. Zelda, played with intensity and humor by the terrific Ruehl, is a firebrand, full of articulate ideas and helpful career advice for Rachel, which she delivers with the passion and generosity of a professor mentoring a promising young student. Ruehl persuades the audience, if not the obstinate Rachel, that Zelda has a very nice life, full of lovers (of both sexes, since, she notes, she could never resist experimenting) and travel and success.

Zelda is the kind of driven woman professor whom students hope will shine the light of her attention on their work. In Treem’s vision of the character, Zelda has mentored other women, one of whom becomes Rachel’s nemesis at the important conference. Zelda also has women colleagues to whom she turns for advice and consultation about her (and about Rachel’s) research. Treem puts Zelda squarely in the center of a lively intellectual field in which she wields authority but is open to challenge and change.

Unlike, for example, the women professors in either Margaret Edson’s Wit or Wendy Wasserstein’sThird, Zelda is surrounded by peers who offer fertile intellectual and professional sustenance. Unlike so many women academics portrayed on stage and screen, Zelda isn’t isolated by her power, but centered in community and willing to be displaced by new ideas she knows will come to correct her own—even (or especially) if they come from her own daughter. As such, Zelda is a real step forward for women characters in contemporary American theatre.

Rachel is less appealing, in a conventional sense, but her bristling edginess is justified by her anger at being given up for adoption. Treem layers the character with complicated motivations and impulses, so that she wants to walk out on Zelda, to inflict some of the hurt she’s suffered, but also needs to impress the woman whom she occasionally slips and calls her mother (to Zelda’s delight). Rachel wants to believe she’s different from Zelda, but ironically, they’re very much the same, even if, according to the rules of evolutionary biology by which they both live, they’re different generations of the same genes and influenced by a different set of historical exigencies.

I disagree with Charles Isherwood’s rather uncharitable New York Times review of Rachel as truculent and irritating, a whiny child intent on getting her way. Instead, I find the character to be Treem’s deft representation of what some commentators call “third wave feminism,” a brand of political identification formed in reaction to second wave feminism’s ambitions and analyses. Where second wavers of Zelda’s generation were often willing to forego conventional relationships and were often eager to re-theorize family of all kinds, third wavers like Rachel insist that these social structures can be rehabilitated from within.

Zelda, for example, sees love as a trap—in fact, in one of the play’s best laugh lines, she defines it as “stress”—for which she isn’t willing to compromise the work that sustains her. But Rachel can’t imagine her life without Dean, even though he’s quick to leave her when she takes Zelda’s advice and presents at the conference alone. Unlike Isherwood, I think Treem gives the characters’ arguments equal weight, and doesn’t end their debate with a too-pat solution. Rachel is both more like Zelda than she thinks and is indeed someone different, made from the impulses of a generation who could afford to reject the more stringent ideology of women Rachel dismisses as “you feminists.”

That the play takes a sudden turn in its final moments doesn’t come as a surprise so much as it raises the stakes for the future of Zelda and Rachel’s relationship. I won’t reveal that development here, except to say that the signs of this outcome have been carefully posted by Treem throughout the play. The ending in fact solidifies and makes even more coherent and committed Zelda’s life choices, and Ruehl’s performance avoids sentimentality or easy bids for empathy.

Rachel, too, eludes the clichés awaiting her character had she been drawn by a playwright less astute than Treem. Rous’s performance gets Rachel’s ambivalences exactly right, tracking her character’s dramatic mood shifts and infusing them with thought as well as feeling. Rous presents a carefully wrought performance that matches Ruehl’s moment by moment.

This engrossing production compels from beginning to end. Daniel Ostling’s set is beautifully designed and built. He fills Zelda’s office with both gravitas and chaos, and creates a down-at-the-heels bar in which the women meet in the second act with such detail and authenticity you can practically smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke.

Emily Mann’s direction is unobtrusive and confident. She paces the women’s encounters so that they move quickly and so that the scientific information they share remains fascinating. At the same time, she shades each scene with suspense and a ruminative quality that highlights the script’s emotional undertones.

The How and the Why ends with Zelda’s admonishment that we keep ourselves off the edge of despair by pushing always onward. She suggests that we do our work not because it’s a noble sacrifice but because it creates us and recreates us, and allows us to change ourselves, one another, and the course of history.

Treem brings us to this finale after two absorbing hours with two finely formed, interesting, smart, and captivating women of two different generations. That Treem, Mann, and their collaborators have taken us along on their journey so masterfully is a very rare achievement indeed for women in and at the theatre.

See this production of this play. It runs at McCarter through February 13th.

The Feminist Spectator

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