TimeLine Theatre Company. By Sarah Treem. Directed by Keira Fromm. With Janet Ulrich Brooks, Elizabeth Ledo. 1hr 55mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Biology, evolutionary and otherwise, links the two characters in Sarah Treem’s absorbing 2011 play, staged with balance and care by director Keira Fromm at TimeLine.
Zelda Kahn (Janet Ulrich Brooks) is a researcher in evolutionary biology with a tenured professorship at an unnamed university that resembles Harvard and a passel of distinguished awards on her CV.
Rachel Hardeman (Elizabeth Ledo) is also a scientist, a 28-year-old graduate student at NYU. What field? Zelda asks upon their first meeting in Zelda’s office. Biology, evolutionary, Rachel haltingly responds, briefly halting the professor’s forcedly cheerful drive. “What are the chances?” Zelda wonders aloud.
That’s among the first clues to the reason behind Rachel’s visit and what makes this meeting feel so fraught. Both women are on eggshells, until the conversation turns to their research, and their passion for the work takes over.
Zelda’s name-making achievement, at the age Rachel is now, was a theory that’s come to be known as “the grandmother hypothesis,” about women’s longevity post menopause. Rachel is working on a hypothesis about the reason behind human menstruation that could be revolutionary—and would contradict Zelda’s work.
For a play that consists of just two characters and two long scenes (Act II has the women reconvening at a local dive bar after Rachel has presented her work at a major conference), The How and the Why covers a vast range of themes pertinent to these two generations of professional women: work/life balance, making sacrifices for significant others and children, competition between women, discrimination in a male-dominated field.
Treem also, happily, trusts us to follow real scientific debate without dumbing it down. Though their provenance is fictionalized, the grandmother hypothesis and other theories discussed in the play are drawn from real-world evolutionary biology, and the playwright allows her characters’ enthusiasm for the science to infect us.
Zelda and Rachel are juicy roles, and Brooks and Ledo make a remarkably well-matched pair. The tough, passionate but eminently practical Zelda seems practically written for Brooks, who could make a specialty of her character’s intense intelligence and easy but earned confidence. (TimeLine artistic director PJ Powers told the opening night crowd it was Brooks who brought this script to the company’s attention.)
Ledo has the harder sell with Rachel, the potentially brilliant but heedless youth. Though the reasons behind her mistrust of Zelda’s mentorship eventually become clear, it’s hard not to see her every impulse as self-defeating. And for such a gifted scientist, Rachel's slower than I was at connecting certain dots. I sense we’re meant to be shifting allegiances continually as Treem’s revelation-packed plot unfolds, but the playwright seems to be firmly on the side of sage experience.