The How and The Why, by Sarah Treem. Directed by Nicole Ricciardi. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"And I thought science could be our neutral subject."
Bridget Saracino and Tod Randolph; photo: John Dolan
How two women deal with the natural biology of our times is really not the subject of this play. You might think it is from the dialogue and from the notes in the program at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA. However, what this play is truly about is diverting attention away from what is real and dwelling on what is speculative. There are two characters, a young woman and an older woman. Both are biologists, scientists who have definitive ways in which they deal with with nature and all things naturally interactive. Biology and the functions of female sexuality dominates the dialogue when it doesn't dwell on human relationships, love and sex and motherhood and childhood and loneliness and forgiveness and guilt and pressure and stress and alcohol and cancer and fatherhood and deaths.
Perhaps it is the concept of motherhood that we should talk about here. Neither woman wants the burden of motherhood. They are both scientists with theories to investigate, control, prove. Neither one really believes in marriage and its aftermath as both conceive of love as really sexual intent and devotion as a timewaster where it limits their hours of work, or their concentration on the goals ahead. These two women, Zelda, played by Tod Randolph and Rachel, played by Bridget Saracino are kindred spirits, one older, experienced and mellowed and the other younger, exuberant and intolerant. What they each possess - beyond their theories - is a mutual loathing for untruths, even past untruths, and it is these and the half-truths each tells that provides the drama in the play.
The unspoken, unwritten truth about these two women and their relationship is gradually revealed in the dialogue, coming late in the first act. An astute theater-goer, however, will pick up clues from the get-go and know before the characters reveal it what the play's secret is and how it affects the two. Rachel is angry, vindictive, almost mercenary in the way she goes about realizing her new-found reality. Zelda masks her anxiety and stress by being humorous and telling tales that have no endings because they have no beginnings. Rachel barks, accuses, lets go with vernacular vendings. Zelda lets sophistication and rhetoric rule. As a duet their dialogue rings with wrong notes. Luckily for the play and its audience a lot of this back-and-forth is very funny.
Bridget Saracino is a lively hot-wire Rachel, the younger scientist whose new theory of menstruation is a hot-button subject. Her boy-friend is a key topic for the two women and Rachel's dependence on him becomes a major issue for Zelda. Saracino is the most consistent actress when it comes to a single topic. No matter what is being said about Dean, her boyfriend, her voice and her face are amazingly the same as she defends him, supports him, endorses him both professionally and personally. Even later when they part her presentation of him is exact and it is strong. The actress gives us an incidental lesson in how a scientific mind works on a particular subject and it's fascinating to witness this performance. The secret she carries is clear from the outset and yet having a secret is not really what she plays. Instead of that she goes for exposed jugulars and the language of vengeance when all she really is playing is desperation and longing. A multi-layered creation is Saracino's Rachel which is a very good thing considering the multiple layers of the play.
Tod Randolph's Zelda is the absolute opposite of Saracino's Rachel. Her composed demeanor steadies her through the most awkward verbal moments in the play when Zelda speaks exactly what her mind is thinking. This actress makes a muttered apology into a statement of esteeem and a physical pain at the same time. She can move into the real Zelda without ever leaving the public Zelda, giving us two versions of the scientist at the very same moment. She does this through physical presentation and vocal intonation. The two don't always go together well. She has comic timing that Lucille Ball would envy and she can make a depressing situation into a compassionate thrill-ride. In Randolph's capable hands Zelda is two parts vinegar and one part oil, the perfect dressing for a lifetime of lettuce, crisp on the inside and limp on the outside.
The play itself is a winner. Examining what's lost in a relationship is something Sarah Treem had handled remarkably well. Her comedy is as poignant as her tragedy. Disgrace and humiliation happen off and on stage and support and love manage to make their appearances as well in this play. That is something that Nicole Ricciardi has clearly kept in mind as she directed these two excellent actresses in this fine play. Who they are and what they are to one another, while very important to the story of biologists running rampant, never leaves the stage and yet is not what the director wants us to watch. She gives us, instead, ideology and science. The words of the play become the battle ground on which a romance is played out by two characters who share more than just interests. It is the superb work of four women in this play that makes it a fabulous experience.
Incidental music by Alexander Sovronsky is lovely but his sound design in the second act is sometimes distracting. Patrick Brennan's two sets work for the play and Deborah Brothers costumes make their statements and leave the characters room to work. James W. Bilnoski does just fine with his lighting. Basically it all works and that's what matters.
This odd play sounds, on the one hand, like a bore, a couple of hours of technical jargon on subject matters that matter very little to the actual thrust of the play. If you hear that its about scientific stuff, put that out of your mind and let the scientists on stage perform their pschological magic. You won't mind menstruation chatter a bit.
Bridget Saracino and Tod Randolph; photo: John Dolan
The How and The Whyplays through July 26 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.