Mercedes Ruehl and Bess Rous
in The How and The Why
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Mercedes Ruehl and Bess Rous
in The How and The Why
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Sarah Treem's two-hander The How and the Why, now premiering at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, often feels like a dialectic in dramatic form rather than a drama about people with conflicting ideas. The question Treem seems to want to pose, in various guises, is the old question: "Can a woman have it all?" Unfortunately, it is not very convincingly dramatized.

Rachel (Bess Rous), a 28-year-old graduate student, has come to see Zelda (Mercedes Ruehl), her biological mother, ostensibly just to connect. Soon enough, we discover that Rachel is also there to see if she can find a slot on an important evolutionary biology conference. Rachel has a brilliant theory about the cause of human menstruation, but her abstract has been turned down; and Zelda, who is famous for a theory called "the grandmother theory" which argues that post-menopausal women exist because they contributed to the development of human intelligence, is on the board.

Unfortunately, Rous plays Rachel as so angry and accusatory that she seems more like a teenager than an intelligent adult. She's hostile and irritated in the first scene where she's meeting her mother for the first time -- eschewing social niceties so much that Treem's dialogue feels stilted. (Even as a cover for adopted child nerves, it's unconvincing stuff.) Conversely, Ruehl's Zelda is so much more balanced (and gets all the decent one-liners) that the play quickly loses any sense of suspense.

Treem also creates plot complications that make Rachel even more unsympathetic. For example, Rachel is a scientist, but you'd never know it the way she leaps to conclusions about Zelda based on nothing at all. Furthermore, a central plot point involving Rachel's desire to include her boyfriend in the paper's delivery, although he didn't write the abstract, is particularly hard to swallow.

Emily Mann's direction is on the nose, and there some sincerely affecting moments, particularly when Rachel has a panic attack learning that Zelda is ill. We can see that Rachel needs Zelda to kick against.

Indeed, one wishes that there were more of these scenes, where the shrillness of the arguments about feminism, disguised as about science, takes a back seat to the emotional interactions between the characters themselves. Then, perhaps, a viewer might care about them.

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