Chicago — Joanie Schultz’s swan song as a Chicago-based director is, perhaps fittingly, about women whose own career trajectories face big changes. True, the pair of research scientists at the heart of Madhuri Shekar’s Queen, now in a world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, might not be moving to pastures as green as WaterTower Theatre, where Schultz is taking over as artistic director. But one senses that their story, with the thorny interplay of ethics, ambition and the brick walls of unspoken boys’ club prejudices (unspoken, that is, until shouted aloud), speaks to Schultz as a longtime freelance director.
It’s also hugely fitting that Shekar’s play premiered on the eve of the March for Science on April 22. This piece about colony collapse disorder, or “CCD,” among honeybees, hums and stings in equal measure, raising smart cogent questions about how the monetization of scientific research in academia affects the purity of outcomes. It also touches on how the desire to save the world (perhaps literally) can lead to “confirmation bias”—the desire to see what one believes to be true, even if the data doesn’t wholly support the underlying thesis.
Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty) and Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa) are Ph.D. candidates who have spent years at the University of California-Santa Cruz examining data on why honeybee colonies are dying out. Sanam is the Indian-born daughter of parents who keep trying to push her toward an arranged marriage, while Ariel is the daughter of beekeepers and single mom to a toddler daughter of her own. Together with their mentor, Dr. Philip Hayes (Stephen Spencer), they are about to grab the biggest brass ring imaginable: a cover story in Nature that will definitively lay the blame for CCD at the feet of Monsanto and its use of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.
At the outset of the play, the two women are standing alone at a department happy hour, ruminating upon the professional jealousy they sense from their peers. “It shouldn’t be a competition,” says Sanam. “But it is—and we won!” Ariel retorts. They toast with Pabst Blue Ribbon as they imagine champagne days just beyond the horizon.
But there is a fly in the ointment (so to speak) in the research. Sanam, the statistician charged with crunching the field data collected by Ariel and her team, has found that the latest batch of numbers doesn’t hold up to what the article purports to prove. On a blind date with Arvind Patel (Adam Poss), a successful Indian financial analyst selected by her parents, Sanam finally confronts the reality that the entire basis for the experiment has a fatal flaw—one that goes back to personal choices made by Ariel and herself.
Shekar has written characters like Sanam before, most notably in her engaging look at “gamers,” In Love and Warcraft. Like Evie Malone, the virginal heroine of that play, Sanam has kept romance and family at bay in pursuit of other passions. As her professional work begins to unravel, she finds herself torn between what’s easy and what’s right.
One of the most effective elements in both Shekar’s script and Schultz’s staging is the subtle shifts in the power dynamics and attraction between Sanam and Arvind. (In this, it’s like a cerebral version of the sexual cat-and-mouse games in David Ives’ Venus in Fur, which Schultz directed at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2014.) Arvind, in Poss’ breezy-but-charming portrayal, isn’t a cartoon financial-sector villain. When he tells Sanam “The people who don’t trust science just don’t trust science,” it’s not with a cynical sneer, but with a matter-of-fact ease that makes the truth behind the line that much more effective.
But the real emotional connection here is between Nalepa’s blunt but vulnerable Ariel and Mohanty’s more guarded Sanam. (Mohanty actually is a trained computer scientist, but both actors sound perfectly at ease with the fast-paced scientific dialogue.) Shekar structures the play cinematically, and Chelsea M. Warren’s spare set design allows the action to unfold quickly over the taut 90-minute running time.
That dialogue, with its careful distinctions and classifications of data, begins to fall away as they realize the personal stakes in sacrificing their careers for their ethics. Class distinctions also come to the fore as the enormity of their situation dawns on them. Sanam may lose her visa to stay in the United States, but Ariel points out that she at least has wealthy parents to help her out, even if she’s not sure about Arvind’s marital intentions. Spencer’s professor unleashes a particularly vicious assault on Ariel’s working-class roots that belies the academic objectivity one expects to find in a science lab.
Schultz, whose work has often showed a sensitivity for underdogs (most notably in her heartbreaking staging of Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at Victory Gardens in 2013), leaves her old hometown with an image of two women who know that the future they envisioned isn’t the one they’re getting. But there is a sense of defiance and triumph and solidarity-despite-it-all by the end of Shekar’s intriguing, funny and highly relevant Queen. Schultz seems confident of how she wants to pollinate the theatrical landscape going forward.
» Kerry Reid is a Chicago-based freelance critic