By Zoe Case
Feminist conversation resounded in the Kenyon College Dance and Dramatic Club’s (KCDC) production of Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why over the weekend. Sarah White ’16 and Hannah Zipperman ’16, who performed in the show as part of their senior exercise, played the only two characters onstage. White played Zelda, the biological mother of Rachel, played by Zipperman, who follows in her mother’s footsteps as an evolutionary biologist and is meeting her for the first time. Having two women playing both main characters is a rarer move for a KCDC production. The last time a senior thesis featured two such characters was last winter’s Gideon’s Knot, a play equally as much about family as The How and the Why.
The How and the Why includes themes of birth and death. It deals with the human, real and heartbreaking experience of being a woman. It is about evolution, the human race and the unavoidable generational gap in emotion between mother and daughter. In other words, it is an amazingly well-written and dynamic text. Treem is a voice for the often-voiceless women in theater today.
Overall, the production built upon the script’s strengths. The set was grounded and realistic, an expensive-looking office fit for a professional scientist. The filled space seemed to blend into the background against the play. The lighting never failed to do its job as a focusing force. The atmosphere was dim, giving weight to the story.
A slightly long transition was the only visible blooper in production. The space between the first and second scenes might have benefited from an intermission, though the lack of a pause in no way diminished director Haleh Kanani’s ’16 overall triumph.
Kanani should be lauded for her obvious time spent with the actors. The dialogue was snappy, emotional and clearly researched — and, as the play’s content makes evident very quickly, research of the text is necessary. Much of the dialogue consists of the two characters both of incredibly difficult scientific theory and of their fragmented personal relationship with each other. The problem of the play — the difference in evolutionary opinion of the two scientists about the origin of female menstruation — fed into the underlying theme of female familial relationships.
The only underdevelopment in the production was its action. The intentional movements of the actors were not always sharp, nor were they always effectively timed. There were moments when the palpable tension between the two actors went slack. One of those moments is a recurring motif of the play: Zelda reaching a hand toward her distraught daughter to comfort her. Zipperman played these moments consistently by putting her head upon a table, a movement that hid her face from the audience and, by extension, her mother. This hiding of the actor’s face dropped the emotional ball, and Zelda’s instinctual movement to comfort her daughter was not yet fully realized at the point the play moved on. In short, these emotional moments did not always settle.
The pace of the play earned both actors enthusiastic reactions from the audience, especially when the social awkwardness of these two women, whose entire lives have obviously been spent inside scientific labs, collided. Laughs landed in all the right places, and the production rightfully received a standing ovation when the lights came up at the end. However, Zipperman’s character came off as slightly stilted, aiming for a brisk comic timing that did not always work.
The real standout here was White as Zelda. It is a very rare thing for the audience to lose the actor in a character, yet White achieved it: She became a vessel for her more highly developed character. Even amid all the scientific hubbub, she never, not once, lost track of Zelda’s needs or wants.
The How and the Why ultimately aided in the evolution of theater at Kenyon. What a pleasure to see a play written by a woman, about women, starring two of the most talented women at this College. Hopefully this show begins a new era of fearless female students on the Hill’s stage.