The play "The How and The Why," written by Sarah Treem and starring Mercedes Ruehl, discusses evolutionary concepts of women while demonstrating a fruitful version of motherhood as a mentoring relationship.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, January 22, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Mothering as Mentoring

Princeton's McCarter Theater is one of the most notable local-regional theaters in America. It combines top-flight, meaningful drama with easy parking (if you live within driving distance).

It is currently offering "The How and the Why," an original work written by Sarah Treem and directed by Emily Mann (an interview with the two of them is included in the program).

Treem was inspired to write the play by reading Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography, and specifically by Angier's recounting of The Grandmother Hypothesis (i.e., women live after menopause because the grandmotherly role is so crucial to humankind) and The Toxicity of Sperm (women menstruate in order to dispel the toxic aftermaths of male penetration).

But the truth of these things - as interesting as they are - is not what the play is about. It's about two women on stage the whole of the play - one the 20-something Treem's age, the other the 50-something Mann's (this character is played by the peerless Mercedes Ruehl ) - discussing their relationship, how to conduct science, and how to proceed with a career and life.

Oh, the Ruehl character is the younger woman's mother, but they had never before met since the older woman gave the baby up at birth. In a discussion held afterward the night I saw the play, Ruehl revealed that she had given up a child - a son - at birth and, athough she now has a relationship with him in his 20s, she can't be his mother. A woman in the audience described the interaction between the two stage characters as a mentoring one.

The older woman - an academic success - has a lot to share with her callow daughter, from integrating a career and men (including describing having left her mentor lover in order to pursue her theory - the grandmother one - to advising her daughter to win her sensitive boyfriend back by giving him a blow job), to how to react to the critical questioning the younger woman received during a major conference presentation, facilitated by her mother, of her theory - the sperm one.

Ruehl ‘s character is a patient and helpful mentor - disregarding (for the most part) the often bitter and hostile comments from her daughter. And the advice she gives is good science - that she should consider seriously the criticism (even when it reeks of sexist disrespect) in order to prefect the hypothesis to better reflect the evidence. The older woman demonstrates a good ability to deflect her daughter's emotional tirades because - well, she's her daughter. But the Ruehl character also believes in science and has intellectual integrity.

I marvel that Treem, a young artist, could give such a firm voice to scientific reasoning and discourse, along with so empathically imagining the situation of the older woman as she pursues the best avenue for providing motherly nurturance open to her. The play is not touchy-feely (the women only discuss shopping together at the very end of the play).  It is tough-minded. It also strikes me as brave.

Ah, but that's what makes for a great artistic imagination - along with hard work and brilliance.

In fact, could the idea of motherhood as mentorship be an improvement on most current interpretations of the role - a theory more interesting and valuable than either the grandmother or the sperm hypothesis?