“The How and the Why”, by Sarah Treem, now being presented by Trinity Rep, is the story of an encounter between two female scientists, one an established respected professional, the other a graduate student on her way to her own potential renown. Both of them are evolutionary biologists and both are the creators of original, strongly feminist scientific ideas, the older having defended her “grandmother theory” for decades, the younger about to do the same with her “evolutionary menstruation theory”. How they meet, and why this is at the center of the story, is gradually revealed in the course of this brief but compelling play. The scientific theories, in fact, are secondary to the relationship between the two women, which is a good thing, since each of the theories wouldn’t hold up to close inspection or empirical research and observation, if one truly believes that human biology is an ongoing evolutionary reality. Fortunately for the play as well as for the playgoer, what interests Treem far more is the evolving questions and possible answers to how these women relate and why they were destined to encounter one another in their own microcosm.
As directed by Shana Gozansky and performed by Anne Scurria as Zelda, the acknowledged expert in evolutionary biology, and Barrie Kreinik as Rachel, the ambitious grad student, this becomes a very involving exploration of female evolution, family histories, and the roles of mentor and protégé. These two deliver their lines with very fine-tuned rhythm and well-timed pacing, making the characters truly believable representations of a world-weary mature realist who thinks she has seen it all, and the up-and-comer with an unmistakable chip on her inexperienced shoulder. They are complemented by dramatic Set Design by Tilly Grimes and Costume Design by Olivera Gajic, consisting of blacks and whites and fifty shades of grey. The Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz are effectively dramatic in their own right.
Several revelations in the course of the story are predictable and even telegraphed if one has been paying close attention to inflections, pauses, and unfinished thoughts. The play ultimately could be subject to the same criticism as the evolutionary theories espoused by the two scientists. Close scrutiny might expose some of the more questionable coincidences that wouldn’t provide ultimately satisfying answers to the more incredulous audience member. That said, the dialogue is sharp, clever and witty enough to make the work a fascinating exploration of several universal themes. In the hands of two highly competent performers and a wise and inventive director, the work evolves as a subtle celebration of the sublime contributions of the female of the species over the ages. They prove beyond reasonable doubt that thought provoking theater isn’t just evolutionary but revolutionary.