By Jenny Connell Davis
At Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. Tickets: RivendellTheatre.org, $28-$38. Runs through: Dec. 2
Scientific research within academia is going through its own #MeToo moment, as surely as its counterparts in entertainment, politics, and the corporate world. Add to that the complications of a small, inbred, competitive scientific community, scrambling for funding, assured of its exceptionalism, and entrenched in male-dominated hierarchy, and you have the domain of Rivendell Theatre Ensemble's world premiere production, The Scientific Method, directed by Devon de Mayo.
Playwright Jenny Connell Davis explores this world without the more egregious crisis of sexual harassment and, for the most part, that is an extremely wise choice. Her heroine, academic cancer researcher Amy Lee ( Ashley Neal ), must contend with the subtle and not so subtle professional sabotage dealt her by male colleagues and heads of the department. Reserving the focus on sexual harassment for another day, especially for this hothouse academic environment, allows us a clearer view of the twisty, thorny Gordian knot of gender discrimination that threatens to choke Amy's hopes for progress, let alone graduation, within her field.
After six years doing cancer research for her Ph.D. thesis, extended an extra 10 months by her head professor Julian Millard ( Josh Odor ), Amy's work is "scooped" by a competing lab publishing before her. Julian tries to solace her by dismissing her setback as the risks of their field, but further action slowly reveals his bias. He consigns Amy to a study that the rest of the lab jokingly refers to as the "white mice mess," meanwhile, promoting Danilo, or Danny, Bayani ( Glenn Obrero ) a hot new graduate addition to the lab, to a much more prestigious study which is much closer to Amy's research—and maybe all for bonding with Julian over basketball and appletinis.
Julian wields schmoozing as his weapon and art form, cultivated, no doubt, during the perpetual conference-hopping he engages in while Amy takes over his teaching load. Indeed, one of the kudos to Josh Odor's portrayal of Julian is his ability to render him smooth and charming, even at his dastardliest. Julian's eye is always on the ball and that ball is always about money. Meanwhile, Ashley Neal's performance deftly glides Amy's decline into depression and isolation, checked only by a possible collaboration and/or affair with Danny, as well as her push to support a promising student in Makayla Lozada ( Courtney Williams ), blossoming well beyond her initial hesitancy in taking Amy's class.
Indeed, it's Makayla's success that threatens to pull away the veil of Julian's suavity and tear it asunder. Incredulous that an African-American woman could advance so far and wishing to "protect the brand" of his lab, he refuses to allow her to apply for a prestigious fellowship and, instead, accuses Makayla of cheating on her exams. Makayla's crisis of status within the department, not Amy's, brings on the unraveling of Julian's judgment and authority. It opens the way for Danny to reveal that Julian may have shared Amy's research with the principal investigator who "scooped" her at the competing lab, who just happens to Julian's old pal and roommate from Stanford.
Of course, nothing is provable and real help from Marie Healy ( Carmen Roman ), the lone tenured female scientist in the department, is not forthcoming, other than cautioning Amy against becoming known in their small scientific community as a "troublemaker." When Amy's meltdown in front of Julian finally happens, Neal unloads a most brilliant release of emotional fireworks—acknowledging her culpability in Julian's belittlement of previous female researchers as "worker bees" and confronting him with her most desperate plea, "When did I stop being your hotshot?"
Devon de Mayo has crafted a tight and well-balanced ensemble of her cast. Indeed, the only character that seems slightly underdeveloped is Marie Healy and that is certainly no fault of Carmen Roman, who gives her an august, yet wry and bemused edge, especially in her encounters with Julian. It's just that 20 years being the lone female scientist in a more intractably sexist culture than Amy or Makayla have enduredsurely there are many tales to be told there, for another day, for another play.