Elizabeth Ledo and Janet Ulrich Brooks
Elizabeth Ledo and Janet Ulrich Brooks Credit: Lara Goetsch

Twenty-eight-year-old grad student Rachel Hardeman tiptoes into Professor Zelda Kahn’s Cambridge office (Harvard? MIT?) with such diffidence that you half expect her to change her mind and tiptoe back out, no one the wiser. She doesn’t do that. And yet she doesn’t go so far as to make her presence known, either. She simply stands there—timidly, it seems—waiting for the professor to look up from her papers and register her presence.

It’s the last time you’ll see Rachel do anything at all suggesting timidity.

The rest of Sarah Treem’s engrossing The How and the Why has her plowing through a wide, wild, occasionally frightening array of behaviors, from trembling anger to jaw-dropping arrogance, paranoia to despair.

Rachel is working toward a career in evolutionary biology. At 56, Zelda is an eminent scholar in the discipline—a veteran of years of fieldwork who came up with an elegant notion called the Grandmother Hypothesis, which purports to explain why human women survive past menopause even though their contribution to the survival of the species would seem to be over at that point. The Grandmother Hypothesis is what got Zelda her nice office, with its dark wood furnishings. Just now she’s getting ready to host a major annual conference of research biologists.

She greets Rachel cordially, once she notices her. They clearly have an appointment, but just as clearly know very little about each other. Rachel isn’t Zelda’s student; the professor doesn’t know at first that they work in the same branch of science, much less that Rachel applied to present a paper at the conference but was rejected.

Still, their conversation feels fraught even at the small-talk stage. And it only gets worse when Rachel reveals that she’s got an elegant notion of her own, having to do with the evolutionary significance of the menstrual cycle. It’s nature’s way of flushing out the toxins, she argues, that ride into the uterus along with sperm.

Zelda praises Rachel’s spunk, as it were (“My God, that’s ballsy”), and throws out a few suggestions for tightening the concept. But Rachel will have none of that. She’s adversarial in the face of acceptance, confrontational despite a lack of resistance. She’s grandiose, self-righteous, wheedling, profane, and suspicious. Skittish, too—always a hair’s breadth from taking umbrage, dissolving into tears, or just walking out. She collects her things and makes for the door more than once. Peculiar.

Equally peculiar, however, is the fact that Zelda doesn’t help her on with her coat. Is Rachel’s theory really that great? Does the professor really value collegial discourse so highly that she’s willing to accept abuse from a stranger who may be as unhinged as she is brilliant? It doesn’t seem adaptive, as the evolutionary biologists say. In fact, it suggests a hidden motive. A crucial secret. There would seem to be something Treem isn’t telling us.

Sure enough, there is—and it comes out fairly early, thank God. I’m not disclosing it out of a sense of critical etiquette, but chances are you’ll guess it well before you’re told, as you’ll guess a number of things that are supposed to come as surprises. The How and the Why is basically a genre play; its narrative tricks are often obvious and, now and then, a little cheap. Though it may start out mysteriously, it doesn’t end that way.

Nevertheless, Treem makes the most and more of her familiar tropes, delivering a smart, vital piece of work that accesses the thrill you get listening to the banter of terribly erudite people in plays like Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, while also—again, a la Bennett—warming your heart. Not least of all, it provides a canny portrait of second- and third-wave feminism confronting each other across the chasm of a generation and the width of a mahogany desk.

Elizabeth Ledo may overplay her anger as Rachel in the new Timeline Theatre production directed by Keira Fromm. The crucial secret notwithstanding, we’re looking for assurance that Zelda isn’t completely nuts to tolerate her visitor, and Ledo refuses to give it to us. Implausible as it sometimes feels, however, Ledo’s implacability has the compensatory virtue of keeping her audience off balance—and there’s nothing wrong with that. So I’ve got mixed feelings about her performance.

One thing I’ve got no mixed feelings whatever about is Janet Ulrich Brooks‘s marvelous turn in the role of Zelda. They say that good writing pushes the reader on, compulsively, from sentence to sentence; Brooks does the actor’s equivalent of that here. I can’t remember when I’ve seen such an energetic and engaged presence, such a palpable sense of a constant negotiation with the moment. She’s the very embodiment of the sort of vivid intelligence you’d expect from a world-class scholar, and she’s a wonder.