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Herbert Wolff Reviews "The How and the Why"

Friction and discomfort are apparent from the moment Rachel tosses her backpack on a chair in the classic Ivy League office of Professor Zelda Kahn.  They are meeting for the first time, on the eve of a major biology conference.  The edginess on the part of both women continues throughout The How and the Why – the play now on stage at Shakespeare & Company.  This tension colors and, indeed, “grows” the play.

The two women quickly discover that each is interested – passionately interested – in research in the same narrow field of biology: the female reproductive system.  Zelda, in her mid-50s, is an eminent scholar, renowned for her work on the “Grandmother Theory” – which holds that menopause conferred an evolutionary advantage on primitive humans, by allowing older females to gather food for the family while their daughters were pregnant or nursing.

Rachel, a graduate student in her late 20s, has developed a radical new hypothesis to explain why women menstruate, whereas most other mammals do not.

Rachel submitted a paper for presentation at the conference, for which Zelda is a member of the organizing committee.  The paper was rejected, and the younger woman confronts the esteemed professor, demanding to know why her theorem cannot be heard by her peers.

The How and the Why was written by Sarah Treem, a highly regarded and award-winning author of both stage and screen plays.  The title of the play comes from “Renascence,” a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

“I saw and heard, and knew at last

The How and Why of all things past.”

The work premiered in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2011, and since has been produced by regional theaters in New York State, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

This Berkshire production – directed by Nicole Ricciardi – is well paced, and maintains the appropriate tone and tempo for the theme and the dialogue.  It stars Shakespeare & Co. veteran Tod Randolph as Zelda…paired with newcomer Bridget Saracino, as Rachel.

The duo embarks on essentially a two-way, highly emotional confrontation.  The women skillfully wend through a thicket of intellectual sparring, personal pain, sacrifice and discovery.  As Rachel learns: science is a competitive sport, at one point crying out: “Will life always be this hard?”

It must be stated…this play and its premise will be most accepted and appreciated by mature women.  But men may also find themselves absorbed…and possibly learn something.

The How and the Why plays now in repertory through July 26th, at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Massachusetts.

Herbert Wolff studied under the guidance of Lee Strasberg and subsequently had roles with summer theater companies in upstate New York and on live television. He is former vice president of International Television Association and former Chairman of Massachusetts Advisory Council on Scientific and Technical Education. Herb continues to write, direct and appear in stage plays. For 25 years he has been the on-air reviewer of theater and opera productions for WAMC Northeast Public Radio.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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