Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Richard's recent reviews of Beach Blanket Babylon and Colossal and Eddie's reviews of Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller and Talking Heads
Which is why I'm delighted to report that one of the Bay Area's smallest theater venuesthe 50-seat Harry's UpStage at Aurora Theatre Companyis hosting one of the Bay Area's current best productions, the electric and thought-provoking The How and the Why.
Sarah Treem's 2011 play concerns two women, evolutionary biologists whose connection to each other is clearbut never clearly stated until the second act. (Though savvy theatergoers will likely guess the nature of the relationship far earlier than that.) The younger woman, Rachel, has come to meet Zelda, a researcher of some renown, in her office at an unnamed university in Boston. The tension crackles in the air as Rachel and Zelda dance around the unacknowledged elephant in the room, circling each other, each evaluating the other's emotions, reactions, and skills. Several times, Rachel threatens to leave, deciding the meeting was a bad idea, but Zelda persuades her to stay and their conversation deepens.
Though the two had never met prior to this moment, and Zelda has only just discovered she and Rachel are in the same branch of science, it doesn't take long for their shared passion and curiosity to compel them into conversation. The topic of the day? Rachel's biological hypothesis, which she claims is "going to change everything." Not just evolutionary biology, but sex and relationships and patriarchy. Everything. The dialogue also crackles as Rachel and Zelda discuss this hypothesis as well as the work that won Zelda tenure and a famous scientific prize when she was about Rachel's age. "The little pimp has a pathogenic entourage," Rachel says, referring to the array of viruses and bacteria the penis takes everywhere it goes. In discussing the maternal instincts of primates, Zelda states a baboon mother will "nurse [the baby] for five yearsbut after that won't peel it a fucking banana!"
Though there's plenty of science here (even a high-school level of familiarity with biology and evolution should be sufficient for understanding), it's the more general intellectual curiosity on display that makes this play so compelling. To see two brilliant minds prodding and pecking at ideas to expose both their strengths and weaknesses is fascinatingespecially when the setting is as intimate as this, and the actors are as skilled as Nancy Carlin and Martha Brigham.
As Zelda, Carlin somehow manages to bring a maternal empathy to a character who is completely, even slavishly, devoted to her work. Her focus is intense, yet she gives us glimpses of the doubt underlying all her intellectual confidence. Martha Brigham's performance puts me in mind of a young Lili Taylor. Her Rachel practically vibrates with ambition and competitiveness. But she too is able to simultaneously exhibit the naiveté of youth.
In a jaunt through biology, feminism, sexism, evolution, culture, and politics, Carlin and Brigham (ably guided by director Joy Carlin) allow us to ride along, quiet passengers on a thrilling journey.
The How and the Why runs through May 22, 2016, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesday at 7:00 pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm Tickets are $45. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.