The New Jewish Theatre - Creve Coeur, MO

The How and The Why

Runs from Jan 24 through Feb 11, 2018

Reviewed by Joan Leyden

Tackling an array of issues that would be daunting to any playwright, Sarah Treem has taken on the subjects of menstruation, menopause therapy, the evolutionary importance of “grandmothering”, gender bias in the academy, and careerism versus motherhood/family, crafting an intellectually stimulating and emotionally affecting play that was enthusiastically received by the audience on a recent cold January night.

In the opening scene Rachel, a rather rigid, young graduate student (played by Sophia Brown) arrives in the unconventionally comfortable office of an older Harvard professor, Zekda (Amy Loui). Both these women are environmental biologists, one at the beginning of her career, the other nearing the end. Rachel comes seeking recognition for her revolutionary new theory on menstruation, while Zelda, a relaxed and charming sophisticate is receptive to her ideas but is somewhat puzzled by the girl’s barely concealed animosity and struggles to understand her.

What develops is a lively and challenging scientific discourse between the two on their respective theories (these real theories incidentally are presently in consideration in the scientific community.) Sympathetic Zelda is impressed and helps Rachel present her ideas to the academy but having done so, Rachel interprets the response of the audience as rejection.

It is here that the backstory of their relationship opens up the play. Zelda is Rachel’s mother, having given her away as an infant in order to pursue her career, and now, the emotionally needy younger woman gives way to a rather severe panic attack in what she views as the end of her budding career. The comfort Zelda offers is exactly what Rachel needs, warmth, compassion and professional advice. It is a lesson in survival in the highly competitive discipline they share. It opens up a deeper level of trust and reveals how they might just be able to enrich each other’s lives emotionally.

The acting is excellent and, as handled by director Nancy Bell, the pace of the play is well sustained, its discourses well presented, and the development of the characters believable and affecting. The piece strains credulity occasionally (both mother and abandoned daughter taking up the same discipline, and both with lovers unsympathetic to their career). But on balance The How and the Why is a valuable consideration of some highly relevant issues, and a touching vehicle for its two actresses.

Expertly mounted, the play’s two settings by Margery and Peter Spacik, the costumes of Felia Davenport, and Michael Sullivan’s lighting all contribute greatly to the reality of the piece. Congratulations to the New Jewish Theatre for a successful and courageous exploration of women’s issues.

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