Theories & Generations Clash in Treem Play

BERKELEY — “The How and the Why” at the Aurora Theatre is a terrific two-woman play by the noted playwright Sarah Treem. It is intense and profound with an ending that leaves the audience questioning the scientific theories of the characters.

Treem has written and produced the series “”The Affair”, “In Treatment” and “House and Cards”, among others . She has won awards for many of them, including a Golden Globe. She is a creative and skillful writer.

“The How and the Why” reads like one of those series in places. However, unlike those, there are two acts (with one intermission) with sustained and not episodic plots. But the flashbacks and descriptions of the lives and work of the two women is a bit like those in the series where stories can wander.

A younger Rachel (Martha Brigham), a graduate student at N.Y.U. in evolutionary biology, comes to the office of the older Zelda (Nancy Carlin), a renowned scientist in the same field who is at a prestigious university. Rachel is very nervous and confrontational it first seems because her revolutionary paper was not accepted at the conference about to begin for which Zelda is the principal organizer. But that is not the entire reason.

If correct Rachel’s theory is ground breaking. She proposes that according to Darwinian evolution, menstruation evolved to eliminate pathogens introduced by the penis during coitis. There are other particularities of her thesis discussed. Zelda’s older theory, for which she has become famous, contradicts this.

Rachel’s theories, in fact, are those of a real biologist Margaret J. Profet, about whom author of the play Treem read in articles by Natalie Angie, a science writer for the New York Times. So Treem’s science dialogues are accurate. But there are other levels of the story and these become the soap opera. Who is Rachel? What about Zelda’s past? I would be a spoiler if I revealed more, but they are a bit too coincidental to be believable in a play that depends on the ability of the audience to consider the reliability of evolutionary theories under discussion.

The production is brilliant. Placed in the second and smaller theatre at the Aurora, the audience sits around almost three sides of the stage. The theater accommodates about 50 so it is similar to the original Aurora Theatre at the Berkeley Women’s Club when it first started. This intimacy engenders a very special atmosphere.

The master Bay Area set and lighting designer Kent Dorsey has made Zelda’s office befitting of its Ivy League location with a large gothic window, diplomas from Harvard on the wall, papers strewn all over desks and benches and filling storage boxes from Office Depot. The requisite oriental rug is on the floor and the comfortable swivel desk chair a place for Zelda’s meditation at times. The second act takes place in a local college pub complete with hockey sticks and Boston Bruins posters on the wall and a popcorn machine in the corner.

Nancy Carlin’s Zelda is admirable. Now that Carlin is no longer the ingenue, a part that she continually played in her younger years — not always to much success — she has matured into a formidable actress. She has gained stature in size and confidence for a part such as the world-famous academic that she portrays.

Brigham’s younger scientist is nervous, emotional and insecure. As hard as she tries to be professional, she breaks down at times. The personal story that comes out in the second act is just too much to take for her.

“The How and the Why” is the perfect play for the Aurora Theatre. It is compact and does not depend on several actors and multiple set changes. Joy Carlin’s (Nancy Carlin’s mother) has done a superb job directing this play. She is a former actress whose attention to small detail I always enjoyed watching. Zelda’s wiping off a sticky table at the bar, her moments of repose, the brief silences are some of these details. She has also allowed that actresses have their own quirks and little stage movements. The interaction between the two is heart-felt and real.

“The How and the Why” at the Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, runs through May 22, 2016. For info: 510 843 4822 or go online.
© Carol Benet 2016
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.

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