A Play About Women Scientists Still Brings Up Boy Problems

Even so, Karen Trumbo's performance is not to be missed.

The How and the Why sparks to life midway through the first scene. It's there that Sarah Treem's play, directed by Philip Cuomo for CoHo Productions, arrives at its central subject: the possibly contradictory theories of two evolutionary biologists. One of these biologists is Zelda (Karen Trumbo), a 50-something professor who made herself famous with an award-winning theory 30 years before, and the other is young graduate student Rachel (Gwendolyn Duffy), who has a radical new hypothesis to propose. Through the lens of their science, the two women—whose exact relationship is only explicitly revealed late in the first act, but is fairly immediately obvious—end up debating their contrasting positions on feminism, careers, love and life.

Zelda is a woman who chose her career over everything. But she is neither shamed for it, nor brought to a state of teary regret over her apparently loveless past. Roles like Zelda are lacking for women in theater, and Trumbo proves what a loss this lack is with her powerful but sensitive performance.

However, Treem's two halves are almost fatally lopsided. Wise, circumspect Zelda is always right, while the arrogant, uptight Rachel is always wrong, and this lack of genuine moral or intellectual grappling (with the exception of the scientific discussions) makes the second act drag. While it's thrilling to see two female characters pursuing serious scientific careers, it's disappointing they aren't allowed to do so from more equal positions; disappointing, too, that though the debates about their theories and careers are by far the most compelling sections, the play can't resist returning to questions about men and romance.

Despite that lagging feeling, and the fact that the play is just two long scenes separated by an intermission, Cuomo keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Trumbo's performance should not be missed, and there is much to admire in Treem's interest in scientific women. But admiration for Treem's intent ultimately makes it all the more frustrating that she does not build a more balanced, messy conflict for her characters to inhabit.


SEE IT: The How and the Why plays at Coho Productions, 2257 NW Raleigh St., cohoproductions.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through Nov. 19. $20-$28.

Willamette Week

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.