Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The How and the Why
The 2010 play takes two no-nonsense theoreticians and brings them closer and closer together. Like a bird and its hatchling, one gradually teaches the other to fly, in their own shared version of the air. The younger woman learns (yes) to believe in herself, but also (as a scientist) to bravely defend her own theories in a sometimes brusque, male-dominated field. It's the 21st century, people, get on board.
The How And The Why is a puzzling, engaging, "outsiders" look at our own male-centric understanding of society. The play is by Sarah Treem, extrapolating from a theory by MacArthur Fellow Margaret Profet, centering on human menstruation itself. And in the hands of Ms. Treem (a producer and writer for TV shows like "House of Cards" and "In Treatment"), this theory becomes a jumping off point for understanding an entire gender, not merely independent of men, but biologically defending itself against them as well. (And for understanding mothers and daughters too, thank goodness.)
There is warmth and excitement in that, thanks to director Nancy Bell. The dialog can get a little cumbersome, though, when it turns to the development and promulgation of this women-centric theory of the role of menstruation in human society. I'm tempted to bring a Breitbart-reading friend back to the New Jewish Theatre with me, just to watch him squirm through this alternate-universe of feminism. But beyond that, The How and the Why also grants a fleeting, occasional glimpse into what may be the very surprising cornerstone of our own civilization.
And yet, even in the hands of a smart, talented actress like Amy Loui, the conceptual and biological theorizing is almost too big for the stage. Still, it's great to see her looking like herself, instead of a deranged gunman or an Amish schoolgirl or a grandmother in her 80s, as she has on stage in recent seasons. And, because Ms. Loui can play just about any character you'd care to throw at her, she can easily take on this cerebral, nearly 60-year-old researcher (Zelda) and make her wonderfully human by the end.
Ms. Treem's script is unconventional in its reliance on "big talk," and even in how it reveals character through its own small talk, too. That's not a bad thingbut a lot of the big talk just goes by in what seems to me like a sort of unvarying rush. Glimmers of intellectual delight really are there, and I hate to say I want "more emotional women," but I might tweak the highs and lows by just another five percent. If thoughts and ideas are your playthings, you ought to enjoy them a bit more. Or am I just stereotyping women again, expecting more emotionality?
Sophia Brown is, in fact, flinty and opaque as Rachel, partly as a defense mechanism. We don't even know that she's Zelda's daughter at first, in their very clinical (almost mystical) reunion, but they are clearly cut from the same cloth. The big drivers of the story are: 1) that Rachel was not raised by a scientist, so certain concepts, like professionally, methodically tearing one's own pet theory to shreds, or making it stronger through a confrontational public review process, have somehow, bizarrely, taken her by complete surprise; and 2) that she has a scientist-boyfriend with suspicious motives.
But she has managed to become a scientist nonetheless, and if it weren't so much of a hard-headed exploration, you might say it was the "hand of fate" at work. Also in the process, Rachel's got herself stuck with this lover who insists he needs his own marketable scientific theory, to kick-start a career, and she's already agreed to sacrifice her own, for him. These are the twin tracks a whole complex train of thought runs on: the ruthless dissection of each woman's landmark theories, and the "panning for gold," in each of their lives, to find a worthwhile lover.
But their problems with men and with constructive engagement in the seeming flaws in their own theories of life, each supply a good framework as they engage in the play's actual, unexpected discovery: how they may fill the empty spaces in each of their own hearts.
The production features an appropriately hyper-realistic (and charming) set by Peter and Margery Spack.
The How and the Why, through February 11, 2018, at the black box theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Dr, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association