“The How and the Why” Answers Questions I Never Asked

Tonight I went to see the latest New Century Theatre production at Smith College, “The How and the Why,” by Sarah Treem. It’s a serious play about a mother and daughter who come together for a biology conference and find similarities in their adult lives after the mom gave her daughter up for adoption when she was a baby.

Lisa Abend and Suzanne Ankrum performing The How and the Why at Smith College.
Lisa Abend and Suzanne Ankrum performing The How and the Why at Smith College.

For the first 45 minutes of the play, it wasn’t at all clear why these two women were meeting in this professor’s office. There is lots of hostility and many questions, and it’s clear that they don’t know each other.

That is until Rachel (Suzanne Ankrum) blurts out the word “Mom!” in exasperation, in between the plentiful F-bombs she liberally uses throughout the show. I asked myself, ‘who are they and why is Rachel here, so tense, so agitated?’  It took much too long for it all to become clear, and after, my main problem was, I didn’t like either character.

When the mother,  Zelda (Lisa Abend) spoke her lines, the tone of her voice and the inflection just did not seem genuine. Would someone would really say things like, “love is like the Stockholm Syndrome.” ?   The script let us down in these places, and again and again, it was intense stretches of detailed biological research theories, perhaps fun for the former Smith college science profs who might be in the audience, but for most of us, huh?


But it’s all central to the complicated plot, so we grind on. The two actors do a remarkable job memorizing so many complex sentences about science, placentas and the aforementioned menses, and in the end, their tenderness makes their icy beginning a little more palatable.

The show’s two sets were very well composed, we first see a professor’s office in Cambridge and it looks perfectly real. Even the wafting smoke from the very real cigarette Rachel smokes (with the pretend window open) drifted up into the audience so we could smell it.

Then the second set, a dive bar in Boston, was also remarkably realistic, with a neon Miller Lite sign behind the scrim of a blind, and a clever set up so they could get food and drinks without having any other actors come on stage. Kudos for the sets goes to Shawn Hill and Amy Putnam.

The How and the Why runs through July 12 at the Mendenhall Center for Performing Arts, Smith College. for more information visit New Century Theatre’s website.