Encore Michigan

Theatre Nova’s ‘The How and Why’ is “riveting”

Review February 03, 2019 Kym Reinstadler

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Most of daily life spins on the easy questions: Who, what and when. Scientists probe the deeper questions: How and why?

Answering the “why” question propels Theatre Nova’s superb and richly layered drama by Sarah Treem, The How and the Why, which continues through Feb. 24. Don’t miss it.

This play is shaped from two intimate conversations between two female biologists – one older and one younger – who have competing theories about the evolutionary origins of menstruation.

Weighty subject matter, to be sure, yet impassioned, crackling dialogue between Zelda (Diane Hill) and Rachel (Sayre Fox) render the subject matter riveting. Really.

We’re barely into the first act when we realize — although these two scientists are meeting for the first time – their connection runs deeper than a shared fascination with the mysteries of the female reproductive system.

The older woman, Zelda, etched her mark in the scientific community in her late 20s by proposing the “grandmother hypothesis.” She asserts that menopause accorded an evolutionary advantage to ancient humankind because older females would gather food and care for older children while their daughters were perpetually pregnant or breastfeeding the very young.

The younger woman, Rachel, argues her hypothesis that menstruation evolved to flush out bacteria that hitchhike along with sperm during intercourse and threaten to infect the uterus.

The first conversation starts out as a mostly collegial discussion, but evolution and emotion collide as the dialogue strays into attitudes and personal choices that women of any generation face – such as men and marriage, family and career, professional recognition and personal contentment.

As the two seemingly combustible scientists thrash it out, we feel like we’ve got a ringside seat at a match of “survival of the fittest.” Zelda intuits that Rachel minimizes her own academic accomplishments to bolster the sagging ego of her boyfriend, who is on the verge of being cut from grad school. Her objection is not welcome by the younger woman. Rachel’s voice is acerbic as she asks Zelda, who never married, whether her grandmother hypothesis keeps her warm at night.

Yet, the play has tender moments, especially when Zelda calms Rachel’s panic attack. Sprinkles of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay sweeten the script.

By the end, we don’t know how the relationship between these two scientists will continue. Will Rachel be an emotional support for Zelda as she goes through a personal challenge? Will they ever spend a holiday together, or even go antique shopping?

What we do know is more about how the world of science works, with theories being repositioned as new evidence comes to light.

You’ll leave the theatre surprised that almost two hours have passed and eager to learn more about the real-life scientific theories upon which Zelda’s and Rachel’s hypotheses are based.

Hill and Fox, who have performed together in previous Theatre Nova productions, have the perfect chemistry for Zelda and Rachel. They are wary, testy, obsessed, explosive and vulnerable in all the right proportions.

Director David Wolber has done justice to Treem’s tight, compelling script while highlighting the talents of two amazing actresses. Forrest Hejkal’s set designs – Act I takes place in Zelda’s office at a university and Act II is in a dive bar – are functional and appropriately simple for a character-driven drama.

“The How and the Why” was originally produced in 2011 at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor brings the play to Michigan for the first time. While academic communities may embrace this play most readily, be assured that one doesn’t need a Ph.D. to enjoy it. There’s plenty in this vibrant script for all adults to love.

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Week of 8/8/2022

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