One trick of great playwriting is crafting a theatre piece that is more than meets the eye. For example, David Auburn’s Proof is a play about math that isn’t about math at all. And Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive is not really about learning how to drive. A similarly great play, Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why, now playing at Trinity Rep, is ostensibly about evolutionary biology and its various theories. But there is much more going on below the surface.
Treem’s play starts quickly, introducing us to Zelda Kahn, a highly respected and revered evolutionary biologist. As she paces her office, it’s clear that she is very nervous about whatever is about to happen. Soon enters Rachel Hardeman, a 28-year-old scientist in the same field who has recently stumbled upon a fantastic and controversial hypothesis. She has a connection to Zelda and as the two of them become acquainted, they take the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride.
Coming from a family of doctors, Treem knows her science and it shows. The play is full of scientific jargon, hypotheses and theories. On the other hand, Treem also has a finely tuned ear for how people talk, interact, respond and react to each other. Her dialogue crackles with energy and is filled with laugh-out-loud humor as well as deeply expressed sadness and fear.
One minor issue in the play itself lies with some of the bombs that are dropped in the second act. Most audience members will see them coming from a long way off – which doesn’t necessarily lessen their impact. They do feel, though, a bit unnecessary, as if Treem started with a one-act and then extended the drama for as long as she could.
For better or worse, Treem must rely on the director and actors to bring her words to life, and here she is in very good hands. Director Shana Gozansky has succeeded in making her influence invisible: there’s never a moment when you might think, “They’re only doing that because the director told them to.” Everything happens so organically and naturally, and feels so real, it is a credit to the director and her two talented actresses.
The first of those is resident Trinity company member Anne Scurria as the elder scientist. While Scurria has had many opportunities to shine over the years, this is another tour de force for her. Her Zelda is a wise and weary woman who has made some very difficult decisions in her life and has been learning to live with those choices ever since. The weight of that struggle is apparent on Scurria’s shoulders, though she keeps things witty, sarcastic and hopeful.
As the younger scientist, the strikingly beautiful Barrie Kreinik gives an intensely honest performance. The role calls for her to experience every emotion, from love to hate to joy to despair, and she does it perfectly. Kreinik makes her protrayal seem effortless as she truthfully inhabits the life of a young woman struggling with her own decisions.
The choices made by both women provide so much food for thought, audience members will likely be thinking them over long after the play. They’ll also be considering the play’s many themes, including gender, science, love, family, success, failure, death and survival. While you may not be able to predict how the play will affect you, the reasons why you should see it are numerous.