In The How and the Why (November 29-December 30) at Trinity Rep, two whip-smart women bandy about ideas on evolutionary biology. Zelda defends an acclaimed theory on menopause. Rachel presents a new hypothesis on menstruation. Both scientists can’t be right, but it’s unclear which is wrong. Playwright Sarah Treem, who penned and produced the HBO series In Treatment, gives her characters strength, sensitivity and a whopper of a shared secret. As they struggle to find common ground, their battle reveals even more about the evolution of hearts and minds than it does science.
Trinity Rep stages Treem’s 2010 play in the intimate Dowling Theater this month. Resident company member Anne Scurria tackles the role of tenured Harvard professor Zelda, whose confidence and self-satisfaction are tested over the course of the play. Trinity/Brown Consortium MFA candidate Barrie Kreinik makes her Trinity Rep debut as the up-and-coming NYU grad student Rachel, whose thorniness shields a vulnerable need for connection. Director Shana Gozansky, herself a graduate of the Consortium, returns with enthusiasm to helm the production.
“One of the things that excites me the most about this play is that it is simply two people using language and ideas as a way to discover a relationship,” Gozansky reveals. “All of the action is in the words that they use, so the spectacle is in the performances of Anne Scurria and Barrie Kreinik – two virtuosic actresses who are already tearing it up in the rehearsal room.”
Gozansky continues, “Of course anything that makes a play thrilling is often the thing that makes it a challenge, so figuring out how to make the conversation shift and escalate is one of the things we have to contend with. Also, since there are only two people on stage, we have to make sure that those characters and their desires are as expansive as possible so that the Dowling vibrates with their energy.”
Gozansky finds a wealth of themes to explore in The How and the Why, including nature, nurture, ambition, regret and forgiveness. Some issues that Rachel and Zelda face are specific to their gender, from working in a male-dominated field to considering childbirth. Others are universal – decisions about which way to turn at crossroads, hopes of making the right choice, difficulties with aging in general.
With the optimism of youth, Rachel hopes her new theory will "change everything." With the wisdom of her years, Zelda claims, "I’m past the age where I have any interest in intellectual supremacy. These days, I’m simply looking for the truth.”
Rachel and Zelda’s conversations occasionally lapse into scientific terms seldom heard outside a classroom. Even their jabs are humorously geeky: “You couldn’t find mitochondria with the Hubble telescope,” Rachel hurls; Zelda retorts, deadpan, “Nobody could find mitochondria with a telescope.” But director Gozansky notes that all the “science speak” in the script isn’t intended “to teach or lecture – it’s there to illuminate the characters’ similarities and differences.” And once the women get down to the crux of their problems with each other, the answers to The How and the Why are anything but dry.