The How And The Why by Theatre Unbound and the Hennepin Theatre Trust

Caroline Kaiser and Molly Pach in The How And The Why. Photo by Richard Fleishman.

Caroline Kaiser and Molly Pach in The How And The Why. Photo by Richard Fleishman.

Some outstanding stuff in this play, for sure, but it has to be said: The How And The Why (a co-production of Theatre Unbound and Hennepin Theatre Trust, at the New Century Theatre through March 20) is not for everyone.

For one thing, the play is relentlessly past tense. Rachel (the wonderful, compelling and beautiful Molly Pach) confronts Zelda (the nervous yet fiercely strong Caroline Kaiser) first in Zelda’s neatly kept office, then in a funky campus saloon. The rehash and rerehash incidents from their home lives, details of their scientific research (both women are accomplished evolutionary biologists), papers delivered at chi-chi conferences, schooling, personal lives, etc. The play brims with passion, fire and fervor, but there’s no escaping its past tenseness.

What does The How And The Why offer in terms of present tense action? Bitterness. Fear. Scattershot hostility. Guilt. Zelda is Rachel’s (recently discovered) birth mother. (Rachel’s real parents are conveniently deceased; her father died of lung cancer and her mother followed a year later.) Rachel resents her adoption hugely and furthermore feels that her lack of scientific success is due to (in no order): her sex, her youth, her love life, her family, her (lack of) scientific pedigree. Pach plays all this beautifully, pacing, stiff with rage, choking back screaming, wanting to walk away, yet unable to. Kaiser more than matches her, standing up to her, keeping her as composed as possible. This is smart, strong work.

The best thing about The How And The Why? The science. Playwright Sarah Treem gives her audience credit for being intelligent enough to understand some esoteric material: the nature of female biology, of menses, of menstrual bleeding, the collision between male sperm (toxic, according to this play) and the female egg. The nature of sex and the raising of children. IOW, The How And The Why deals directly with basic issues of female identity. Rachel and Zelda have conflicting theories (Zelda’s Grandmother Hypothesis vs. Rachel’s Toxic Sperm theory). This conflict lends the play power. The science gives it substance.

The How And The Why is intelligently directed by Shelli Place. Place keeps the emphasis on the science and doesn’t let Rachel’s wild bitterness wreck the play (it could). Her production is contained and focused.

The play is the latest offering of Theatre Unbound, a wonderful theater specializing in plays about women and their experiences. A wonderful theater and I hope to see more of their work, presented with this level of prominence.

So: see this play but get ready for intensity and bitterness. The science – and the performances – make The How And The Why worthwhile.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book about bedtime stories, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, has recently been published. His adaptation of Art Dog is currently running at Denver Children’s. In progress: a theatrical portrait of the great Anna May Wong.

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