Review: “The How and the Why”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Timeline Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through April 6
Tickets: $35-$48
Phone: 773-281-8463

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Sarah Treem’s “The How and the Why” is a combination of the captivating and the contrived. On the one hand, the writer, whose credits include HBO’s “In Treatment” and Netflix’s “House of Cards,” offers an engrossing examination of evolutionary theories and the role of women in the academic sciences. On the other, this two-hander suffers from too many improbable coincidences and too much psychological baggage.

Fortunately, TimeLine Theatre’s production, carefully directed by Keira Fromm and staged on Collette Pollard’s thrust set (with so-so sight lines), brings together two formidable actresses whose superb work compensates for many of the play’s flaws. Janet Ulrich Brooks plays Zelda Kahn, a 56-year-old senior professor in evolutionary biology at a prestigious Cambridge, Mass., university who made her professional reputation at 28 with “the grandmother hypothesis.” In simple terms, it maintains that the survival of human females after menopause contributes to the success of the species because they help raise their children and grandchildren. Elizabeth Ledo is Rachel Hardeman, a 28-year-old graduate student in the very same field who visits Zelda and expounds her radical new theory about the “why” of monthly menstruation: that it’s a defense against the toxicity introduced by sperm.

Although the two hypotheses seemingly are incompatible, that’s not the main reason for the awkwardness and tension between the two women when they meet for the first time in Zelda’s office. It’s soon obvious that there is something personal between them, and although Treem annoyingly teases this out for the whole first act as if it were a mystery, the nature of their connection is quickly telegraphed. But there’s also a professional issue: An important conference is taking place at the university, and Zelda is on the board that turned down Rachel’s paper for presentation. The younger woman is upset and wants Zelda to intervene.

But that’s not all. The two, both subject to discrimination in the male-dominated field, have different attitudes towards “having it all.” Zelda, a product of the feminist 1970s, had love affairs but sacrificed any lasting relationship to succeed on her own, and now she’s alone. Rachel is convinced that’s not enough and wants to co-present her paper with her scientist boyfriend, even though she claims the idea came to her in a dream.

The second act, set sometime later in a Boston dive bar chosen by Rachel, is chock full of recriminations and revelations, the first coming mostly from Rachel, whose presentation at the conference proved to be problematic, and the second from Zelda, who admits to being ill — disabusing Rachel of one of her many mistaken assumptions and conclusions.

In fact, one of my difficulties with the play is that for someone who’s supposed to be a scientist, Rachel is guilty of sloppy thinking. She’s also, by turns, very prickly, angry, arrogant, rude, emotionally fragile, pigheaded, and more like a petulant teenager than an adult. If it weren’t for Ledo’s ability to show her complexity, vulnerability, and insecurity, it would be hard to have much sympathy for her. The panic attack she has in the bar comes closest to being a turning point, but even here, it’s Zelda’s response that’s most impressive.

Brooks is terrific as Zelda, a tough-minded woman with nothing left to prove, so she’s capable of being personally and professionally generous to her younger colleague even when met with hostility and hurtful remarks. While imparting wisdom born of experience, she’s also sharp and funny, and it helps that she has most of the best lines.

If, like so many plays, “The How and the Why” is meant to show the younger generation ultimately dethroning the old, it fails. But I don’t think it is. At the end, Zelda is the one who sees the possible synthesis of the thesis and antithesis. Although both actresses were equally good, she’s the character I respected and cared about.