Trinity Rep’s The How and the Why

Passion and polemics
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 5, 2012


Judging from the subject matter of The How and the Why, which Trinity Repertory Company is staging through December 30, you'd think that playwright Sarah Treem's successful latest work would be more of feminine than feminist concern, dismissing half of its audience.

Yet this calmly adventurous play bravely risks boring both genders, launching into analyses and disquisitions about menstruation and menopause. We're not likely to see this adapted into a Hollywood vehicle for Meryl Streep and Kiera Knightley (but it could hit the small screen, since the writer is also the showrunner for HBO's In Treatment).

Directed by Shana Gozansky, it doesn't rush things as a snappy one-act; it takes its time with two leisurely acts and an intermission. A drawnout argument about evolutionary biology is at stage center. But this is more than a dry if volatile debate between two scientists, as we hear more about "plasma levels of lactoferrin" and such than we care to know. We get an energetic conversation about life and love, gender roles and conflicts, determinism and determination.

Rachel Hardeman (Barrie Kreinik) is an ambitious young woman, an NYU grad student in her late 20s, impatient to make a reputation for herself. Her theory boils down to the proposition that menstruation evolved in human females in response to sperm being toxic, because of all the accompanying bacteria during intercourse (men being classified as poisonous to women was a metaphorical side benefit). Prof. Zelda Kahn (Anne Scurria), with decades of experience and recognition behind her, has devised what's being called the "grandmother hypothesis." It proposes that, unlike with other primates, menopause developed so primitive women would nurture their grandchildren, who would otherwise be neglected as their mothers were constantly giving birth until their early deaths. As Zelda puts it: unlike a chimp, a human child who has a grandmother to peel his banana has time to get smart.

As they converse in Zelda's office, the professor is patient and cordial and the student is hostile and argumentative. Indicated at the very outset but not discussed until well into the play, Rachel only recently discovered that Zelda is her mother and gave her up for adoption soon after birth. Despite initially being nervous about the meeting, Zelda quickly eases into maternal mode, sincerely admiring her daughter. She praises Rachel's hypothesis as "revolutionary," breaking out champagne, though if widely recognized it would render her theory obsolete. She even says that she will recommend that Rachel read her explanatory abstract at a prestigious upcoming conference.

But it is their unfolding understandings of each other that intrigue us, not all the theorizing. Zelda seems quite content with never having married as well as with not having been slowed down with a child, but her daughter pointedly asks her: "Does the grandmother hypothesis keep you warm at night?" For her part, Rachel unwittingly makes clear that her boyfriend, a grad student in her field, has an opposite personality, shy and passive while she is in perpetual battle. (I didn't buy her being hopelessly romantic and dependent on him, not as she is otherwise drawn. Maybe I believed in Rachel's self-sufficiency more than she did.)

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