The very title poses a puzzle. How what? Why what? Yet the definite articles assert certitude. The what. The how. Turns out in this brainy play about two smart women, perplexity and uncertainty unspool like two coiled strands of a double helix.
Just opened in a solid production at Theater J directed with penetrating precision by Shirley Serotsky, Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why entices us into two interconnected mysteries. Parsed apart those mysteries are interesting, but taken together they are thoroughly fascinating. The play teases us with evidence about each line of inquiry, then leaves us in the extraordinary cognitive situation of figuring out how and why the two are linked.
One of those strands is scientific. The two women are evolutionary biologists. In their professional lives, they both theorize about menstruation—how and why it evolved in the human species. Turns out menstruation is a mystery male scientists have not thought to track down. (No mystery there.) From a Darwinian, natural-selection point of view, menstruation is counter-indicated. What on earth can account for the massive caloric expenditure required for this periodic flushing of the uterus? The advantage to the species of egg production is a no brainer. But with foodstuffs scarce, how is all that blood loss not egregious waste? The question may not be the sort that keeps one up at night, but for the two women scientists in The How and the Why, it’s a bafflement whose explanation cries out to be theorized.
The older is Zelda Kahn, an unmarried woman of a certain age whose scientific brilliance and myriad career achievements have set her up in exactly the life she wanted. When we first meet her in her imposing academic office, we get a sense of her stature, and Valerie Leonard’s flawless performance gives Zelda just the right sort of professionalism, shrewd, cool, and wise-cracking.
Zelda has a theory about menstruation that has garnered her accolades in academe. In a multitude of publications she has put forth a “grandmother” hypothesis. The gist of it is that in primitive society when fertile females were kept constantly pregnant, the job of childcare fell to females who were postmenopausal. Which explains why menstruation stops but not why it begins.
In science both the how and the why are important, as the younger woman, Rachel Hardeman, tells us. A how without a verifiable why is science’s unfinished business.
Rachel is 28, has a boyfriend, and has shown up in Zelda’s office, we don’t yet know what for. Rachel is a doctoral student still looking for the life she wants. She’s on a path of both self and scientific discovery. But what she knows for sure is that she wants her life to include a husband and children along with her career in evolutionary biology. Playing Rachel, Katie deBuys has the more challenging role because Rachel’s early-career angsting could easily get grating. DeBuys, however, finds just the right likeability in her longing, and by the end lifts Rachel to equal standing with Zelda.
Rachel has a theory that menstruation evolved to purge the uterus of all the toxicity that travels with spermatozoa. She’s arguably correct about the toxicity of sperm. (Another topic male scientists probably don’t delight in.) But there are some holes in her theory. Like what about postmenopausal intercourse, which probably happened then as now? Or does Rachel’s theory mean all female life necessarily expired before the flow of menses ceased? Is a puzzlement.
Just as Treem snares our curiosity about the scientific standoff between Zelda’s and Rachel’s views, she casts a prior line of interrogation: Who are these two women to each other? For the longest time, we have no clue.
Turns out they are biological mother and daughter. The backstory Treem tells to arrange for this mother-daughter meeting and explain why it hasn’t happened before is persuasive if a little pat. Zelda gave Rachel up for adoption; Rachel just found out from the agency who her birth mother is; voilà this visit. What makes their slowly revealed connection so provocative is not why it happened but what it means: Rachel not only has traits associated with Zelda’s X chromosome; Rachel has Zelda’s so-called Eve gene (the mitrochondrial DNA inherited only through the female line). And they are now having a mind-blowing exchange about evolutionary biology within a like-mother/like-daughter drama the likes of which I’ve never seen.
Which is why it was no coincidence I walked out thinking of the double helix. The coolly scientific mystery in the play coils around the emotional relational mystery. Round and round they go, each enhancing the other’s hold on our imagination.
This all comes with a gloss of feminism lite. Zelda’s decision while a grad student to give up her child and pursue her career. Rachel’s desire to affirm her relationship with her boyfriend as a coauthor and collaborator in her work. Zelda and Rachel go round and round the “Can women have it all?” question (about which other plays I’ve seen have had more probative things to say). But this was not the discourse that really made me wrap my mind around this play.
What leaps to mind as I think back on the pleasure of watching Theater J’s The How and the Why is its brilliant portrayal of two incandescently intelligent women. At root they are trying to understand something about what bonds them to all mothers and daughters before them—and why that lineage matters.