A rift in the matriarchy ‘The How and the Why’ at Theater J provides much room for new ideas in the cultural conversation

Valerie Leonard, left, and Katie deBuys play evolutionary biologists of different generations in “The How and the Why,”
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Review

Playwright Sarah Treem’s “The How and the Why,” on stage at Theater J through March 12, delves deep into evolutionary biology with nary a Jewish theme present in the talkative two-hander.

Treem, who has gained visibility recently in Hollywood as the showrunner for Showtime’s “The Affair,” which she created with Israeli television and film producer Hagai Levi, and as a contributor and writer on the inside politics hit “House of Cards,” is a Jewish writer.

A graduate of Yale’s playwrighting program, who spent some of her youth in the Washington region, Treem doesn’t write “Jewish.” “The How and the Why” deals with two female scientists, one long a groundbreaker in the field, the other just testing her first original hypothesis.

Their relationship is oddly intimate as the play opens, though they have just met. Zelda, played with dashing confidence and perspicacity by Valerie Leonard, is a leader in her field, having set forth The Grandmother Hypothesis, which explains that humans are the only mammals that experience menopause. Her theory (based on the real-life work of late evolutionary biologist George C. Williams of the State University of New York at Stonybrook) states that women live beyond their reproductive years to help childbearing women — who are fully occupied with infants — raise their older children. This allows older children to develop into healthy adults.

Rachel, a graduate student, has asked the question “Why do women menstruate?” since in evolutionary terms it causes such a caloric depletion for women on a monthly basis. She hypothesizes that menstruation is a defense against invasive pathogens that enter the womb, primarily via a partner’s sperm. Unproven, this theory (also postulated in real life by Margie Profet, who never continued her research and has disappeared — there’s probably an interesting play in that story), has the potential to revolutionize modern thinking on women’s bodies and reproduction.

As Rachel, the rising researcher, Katie deBuys is a dichotomous mess. At moments she’s a tough independent young scholar, then she’s a hesitant, anxiety-filled 20-something. Further along she claims allegiance to modern feminism, not willing to marry, but willing to give her boyfriend and fellow researcher equal credit for the theory she literally dreamed up. The sharp contrast to Zelda’s calm confidence lies at the crux of the play’s premise.

Treem has done her homework in this well-researched work, using scientific dialogue and debate to investigate a deeper personal story that has brought these two women together. Some of her plotline tends toward too-perfect connections or pat conclusions.

Director Shirley Serotsky oversees a tight production on Paige Hathaway’s handsome set with its cozy professor’s office in Act 1 and a dive-y Irish pub in Act 2. On Hathaway’s brick back wall of the stage, a collection of portraits of female ancestors of all races and ethnicities hangs as a reminder of our evolutionary diversity and a multicultural family tree of the many matriarchs who have gone through childbearing and menopause to propagate the world.

Treem has posited an interesting conflict between a mature scientist and her younger potential mentee. Their conflict arises by some unexpected news and focuses on the choices of a second-wave feminist who preferred career over family and a post-feminist, who wants it all but is too willing to give up when facing career and research pressures.

A Theater J trademark at this point, “The How and the Why” is a well-made and intelligent 21st-century drama that provides much room for discussion and introduction of new ideas in the cultural conversation — particularly on female perspectives on evolutionary biology.

Is it a Jewish play? Not really. Treem did name her lead character Zelda Kahn, with its decidedly Jewish ring to it, although there’s nary a Jewish moment save for a champagne toast punctuated with a “l’chaim.” “The How and the Why” is a play about life and asks probing questions about who we are as humans and why and who we got this way.

“The How and the Why” through March 12 at Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529, 16th St., NW, Washington. Tickets start at $37. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.

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