When I asked playwright Sarah Treem to describe her play, “The How and the Why,” then in rehearsal at McCarter Theater, she said, “It’s a play about menopause and menstruation and the imperative of them.” At that, I’m thinking, “Oh, dear.”
But a short conversation with “The How and the Why” star Mercedes Ruehl turns me around immediately. The play certainly piqued the attention of Ruehl, who won an Academy Award for her performance in the film “The Fisher King” and a Tony Award for Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.” She plays the older of the two women in the “The How and the Why,” now in previews and opening Friday, January 14, at the Berlind Theater at McCarter.
At first Ruehl turned down the Treem play. “Because of the time and where it’s being done, I wouldn’t even read it.” She has nothing against Princeton, but it’s not “home.” After all, it was the holidays, a special time with family. Ruehl is married to artist David Geiser and already had planned celebrations with their 13-year-old-son. “I can’t go to Princeton,” she told her agent.
Then came second thoughts. She decided she should at least read the play, which abruptly brought a change of mind. “I just can’t let another actress do this. It would hurt too much. I gotta do it. That’s why I’m here three days before Christmas.” Citing also the dearth of good roles for women of a certain age (she’s in her early 60s,) she says, “There aren’t that many complex, multi-layered, passionate, and powerful roles for women my age.” This play fits the bill.
Still in her early 20s, Treem has very impressive credits to her name. Her work has been performed at major theaters including Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan, where her play “A Feminine Ending” premiered in 2007. She’s a darling at HBO, where she is the producer/writer for all three seasons of the series “In Treatment” and a writer for the upcoming Mark Wahlberg-produced series “How to Make It in America.”
In “The How and the Why” Ruehl portrays an established leader in the field of evolutionary biology, who attends an important scientific conference and meets the play’s only other character, played by New Jersey native Bess Rous, who, like Treem, is in her early 20s. Both characters are making a mark in the world of science, a field traditionally dominated by men. The passion each has for her work is one thing that particularly attracted Ruehl to the play, she says. The rivalry and camaraderie between these two women is complicated by the discovery that they are mother and daughter.
Ruehl lauds Treem’s “facility with language and the power of the characterizations,” balancing the mixed emotions of her character “wanting to mentor this talented young woman while also still dealing with the feelings of anger, yearning, and loss” that emerge on discovering this is her own child whom she put up for adoption six days after she was born. Nature versus nurture: Both women feel equally passionate about their vocations in science.
Ruehl explains the challenge of her character’s back story. “In a field dominated by men, women have a different perspective. How do you fulfill yourself in a relationship, a marriage, motherhood — and a passion? If you are in science at this level, that also is a creative act that demands total, obsessive attention. How do you have both of those things in your life at the same time and not go stark raving mad?”
To be fair, Treem did talk about this very dilemma in addition to her initial statement about menopause and menstruation. Her plays tend to have feminist themes and in “The How and the Why” she takes the vantage point of the generation after the feminist battles of the ’60s through the ’80s. This battle of her mother’s generation was for equal treatment of women and men (by “equal” she means “the same”). “That’s what our mothers fought so hard to achieve, but it doesn’t work out that way because it’s not doable.” She feels that there are innate differences between men and women that make this impossible.
The seeds of the play were planted by a seemingly erudite book Treem’s then-boyfriend gave her a few years ago. “Woman: An Intimate Geography” by Natalie Angier. “What I learned from that book is that physiologically there are ways that a woman’s body works that are radically different from the way a man’s does.” She finds this a natural jumping off point since she comes from a family of doctors. “I’ve always been interested in medicine and the ‘generations of women’ has always been a topic that fascinates me.” It’s a theme that she describes as “hanging over her head.” “I think all writers of dramatic literature have that. It changes as they go through the world and get more experiences, but I think it’s all variations on a theme. I think for me the theme is mother/daughter/womanhood, career versus domestic life. Those are things that always sit on my shoulders.”
In “The How and the Why,” she looks specifically at the maternal instincts and whether a woman should choose career over children. “Is either the right choice? How do we know? Make a choice and you have a whole different life.” She admits, “I don’t know. At the end of the day, do you go toward your passion or do you go toward you family or do you do both?” For those who’ve chosen to do both, she feels it’s “really, really hard — realizing at some point they have disappointed themselves or their families.”
In a written program statement director Emily Mann gives a very concise description: “[It is] a play about sex and gender, power and age, nature and nurture, loss and love . . . a play that compels us to examine some of the unexplored questions of what it is to be a woman — biologically, socially, politically, and emotionally. It is also a great relationship play — about two women of different generations desperately trying to find a common ground.”
Treem’s father is a pediatric gastroenterologist and her mother negotiates business deals for start-ups. She says she moved around a lot as a child but lived the longest — eight years — in New Haven and considers it “home.” She says she has wanted to be a writer from as far back as she can remember. She started writing plays when she was 12. Her first was called “Who Am I Going to Sit with at Lunch?” She thinks that writers write about their anxieties. “That was my anxiety at that time. Who were my friends and were they still going to be my friends by lunch time?” She laughs as she admits, “It was a good play. Thirteen characters. Everything rhymed.” Her teacher was impressed and entered it in a young playwright’s contest, which she won. “I thought: ‘This is easy.’”
She majored in English at Yale, graduating in 2002, then attended Yale Drama School where she earned a masters in playwriting in 2005, studying with a number of important playwrights including Lynn Nottage and John Guare. She feels that going to Yale was “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Not only did she earn two degrees, she also gained a network of talented theater artists. “We grew together during school, moved to New York together, and rely on each other. We call it the ‘Yale Mafia.’”
It was at Yale that she also met Mann. When Treem heard that Mann was coming to Yale to give a lecture she finagled the job of picking her up at the train station. She admits that she “talked her ear off in the car” and even dared to give her one of her plays to read. “I had read (Mann’s) play ‘Still Life,’ and it really changed the way I write.”
The world premiere of “The How and the Why” marks the third consecutive year Mccarter has received the prestigious Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, which helped provide for additional rehearsal and development time for the entire creative team, including the playwright.
In a press statement, director Mann says: “We are grateful to the Edgerton Foundation for providing us with this much needed extra week of rehearsal. With the financial constraints that theaters and artists face today, developing new work is such a painstaking process. The additional rehearsal time will provide the fredoom to explore and develop the character relationships and scientific accuracy upon which the play hinges.”
In an interview done by Carrie Hughes, the literary manager at McCarter, for “The How and the Why” program, Treem elaborates on the lesson learned. “You put people in a room who have very good reasons to be furious at each other, and you don’t let them leave.” Clearly it is a particular treat to have Mann directing her play. “It’s beyond cool.”
I tried to get the scoop on whether HBO’s “In Treatment” will continue beyond this season, but Treem, who has been a writer/producer with the series from the beginning, wouldn’t comment. “I’m very proud of that show.” She thinks it’s a “dream job” for writers, as each one gets to write all seven or eight episodes for one particular character. “It’s like writing seven or eight one-act plays.”
She seems to have a particular affinity for stories about adopted children. Her “In Treatment” story this past season featured Jesse, a troubled boy who tracked down his birth parents. This subject matter has a special resonance for Ruehl as she gave up a baby boy for adoption when she was very young. Through the help of TV personality Rosie O’Donnell, Ruehl has found and been reunited with this son. Additionally, she has three other sons, each adopted. She tells me that neither she nor Treem were adopted, though she adds in that signature low, husky voice of hers, “I venture that all three of us [she, co-star Rous, and Treem] at some point thought we were.”
“The How and the Why,” Berlind Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, January 12 and 13, opening night, Friday, January 14, 8 p.m. World premiere of a drama by Sarah Treem about science, family, and survival of the fittest. Through Sunday, February 13. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.