Pictured: Courtney Williams and Ashley Neal. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Elizabeth Ellis
Every woman has experienced them, knowingly or not, in the workplace: the countless little insidious micro-aggressions and micro-dismissals that some men in positions of authority issue against women to keep them assigned to the places where they feel the women belong. These behaviors result in women being denied professional advancement at the same rate as men, comparable pay and raises, prime recommendations, and equal responsibilities. While women encounter these obstacles in every profession, fewer disciplines exhibit these entrenched attitudes more than STEM professions (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). In Jenny Connell Davis’ thoughtful and provocative new drama SCIENTIFIC METHOD, with superb direction from Devon de Mayo, Davis shows how easily, how often, and casually this kind of derailing occurs, how devastating its consequences can be, and just how incognizant men are to its presence and its effects.
Garfield University graduate student Amy Lee (the powerful and passionate Ashley Neal) earned a spot in a prestigious cancer research lab under the direction of the notable, self-important doctor Julian Milliard (the wonderful Josh Odor), whose eyes are on the ultimate prize: the Nobel. Amy’s interest in finding a cure for cancer is personal as well as professional, as she lost her mother to pancreatic cancer. As the play unfolds, we learn that Amy’s work on basal skin carcinoma shows a great deal of promise: good for medicine as well as for Amy’s resume and career. When a lei-bedecked Julian returns from a conference in Honolulu, he shares surprising and disappointing news with Amy. Another researcher at Stanford has “scooped” her work, which means that everything she has worked on in the lab will be credited to another scientist and institution. Amy’s dreams of publication and securing a plum post-doctoral fellowship evaporate.
As these events transpire, Amy is mentoring an African-American undergraduate, and another of the few women in the lab, Makayla (the excellent and affecting Courtney Williams). Amy sees Makayla’s considerable potential as a researcher and encourages her to continue her studies in biology as opposed to psychology. Another grad student, Danny (the terrific Glenn Obrero), receives more attention and guidance from Julian, as Danny appeals to him not only for his skills as a scientist, but as another man who can easily schmooze donors outside the lab. Julian and another senior researcher (and sole woman on the faculty), Marie Healy (the impressive and conflicted Carmen Roman) find themselves on the schmooze fairly often, and are even in competition for a newly endowed chair in the biology department. After a bumpy start, Amy and Danny find their combined skills can lead to a very positive and productive working relationship. However after the scoop, Julian assigns her to a less demanding project, while simultaneously naming Danny to concentrate on more prestigious work that should go to Amy. Julian sows the seeds of dissent by citing Amy’s “failure to thrive” in the competitive laboratory environment, and sidetracks her into being a promising teacher and technician.
When it’s revealed just how the Stanford researcher acquired the data for the “scoop”, it becomes painfully and frustratingly apparent how alive and well the old boy’s network still operates. As one character says, “the work can’t speak for itself if it’s silenced.” At the conclusion of the play, after the women have risked their professional futures and stood up for themselves, we find that men like Julian have an active interest in keeping women calm and complacent, and in their places: places where they won’t be treated as equals in any sense of the word.
Devon de Mayo manages a tough task exceptionally well: taking science jargon-laden dialogue and the world of the laboratory and making it accessible to everyone. She keeps the work conversational and familiar for the most part, and avoids making Julian an obvious monster, which would be the immediate and simple choice. By allowing Julian to appear sensible, even reasonably justified in his actions, the impact of his treachery and betrayal hits even harder. Lauren Nichols’ cool blue angular set design offers the perfect counterpoint for the emotional tumult that occurs through the play, and Anthony Churchill’s gorgeous and hypnotic projections of cell division offer the audience a fascinating bird’s eye view of what researchers can see every day.
Women in the audience visibly reacted to dialogue multiple times during the performance (especially during an argument when Julian refers to Amy as “sweetheart”) by shifting in their seats uncomfortably, and with gasps, sighs, snorts, and applause: all in familiarity tinged with bitterness. But Amy, too, has blinders on. During an exchange between Amy and Makayla, when Makayla points out that Amy sees the gender inequality in the lab but not the racial disparity, Amy says with surprise, “I hadn’t thought about that.”Makayla responds with, “You should think about that.” This simple exchange perfectly sums up the intersectionality required to foster parity and equality — not just in the lab, but in every aspect of life.
SCIENTIFIC METHOD runs through December 2nd. For more information visit rivendelltheatre.org