Battling biologists at Aurora Theatre

A duet for women earns praise at Aurora Theatre145945010640742_review2.jpg

Two women battle it out at Aurora Theatre’s intimate Harry’s UpStage, in Sarah Treem’s taut, absorbing The How and the Why.  Their bone of contention?


Contemporary theater goes places you wouldn’t expect drama to lurk.  (A recent example made a big to-do out of Shrodinger’s cat.)  What’s dramatic about menstruation?  I’m a guy, so I can’t say, though I suspect most women could forcefully spell it out for me.

But it’s not the personal experience of menstruation that’s at the heart of Treem’s play, it’s why in the world it happens.  Both women–Zelda, who is older and well-established, and Rachel, who is in her twenties and yet to make her mark–are evolutionary biologists.  They agree (about all they agree upon at first) that their job is to focus not on the “how” of something but the “why.”  The issue at hand is: Why menstruation?  What evolutionary purpose could it possibly serve?

Act one takes place in college professor Zelda’s office.  Nervous and on edge, for reasons only gradually revealed, Rachel enters tentatively.  After some sparring she describes her theory: the purpose of menstruation is to cleanse a woman’s body of pathogens introduced by sperm.

In other words, that damned male organ has yet another reason to apologize.

Rachel’s theory has points of conflict with Zelda’s “Grandmother Hypothesis” with which she secured her academic reputation long ago.  But Zelda is sympathetic to Rachel, so much that she offers her a voice onstage at an upcoming scientific symposium, where she can present her daring idea to her peers.

If this all sounds terribly academic, it doesn’t play that way onstage.  In fact it’s a touching human drama in which, wary and argumentative at first, Zelda and Rachel come to a hard-won rapprochement, as they explore surprising, deeper connections.  Not that the ideas in the play are negligible.  One of its pleasures is learning how devoted scientists ply their trade–the questions they must ask and answer in their search for truth.

The production is just about flawless.  Joy Carlin directs with sympathy, understanding and tact, and the two women who fill out the pair of roles are wonderful: Martha Brigham as awkward, excitable Rachel and Nancy Carlin as the cooler but still deeply feeling Zelda.  That Carlin is the director’s daughter adds a touching layer of meaning to the play.

Kent Dorsey provides a revolving, two-sided set that tucks cunningly into the small upstairs theater.  He adds subtle lighting too.  Christine Dougherty did the apt costumes, and Chris Houston the discreet sound.

Smart and watchable, The How and the Why plays on Addison Street until May 22nd.  David Ives’ costume comedy, The Heir Apparent, sets out April 15th.  For tickets/information call 843-4822 or visit