Central Square Theater’s resident Nora Theatre Company has been been building a name for itself as a producer of plays about science. This, I’m guessing, is at least in part due to financial support from MIT, which lacks the artistic operations and fronts of its neighbor up the street. It’s not quite theater for geeks, as science alone doesn’t make for great drama, but it is about as geeky as theater gets. And in a town that prides itself on its intellectual aristocracy, I don’t think anybody can say that plays like Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M. and Photograph 51 don’t have a place.
The Nora’s current production The How and the Why, like Photograph 51, makes itself more relevant to the layman with a feminist angle. Of course, in plays about science, the disenfranchised female genius is something of a stock character; from Arcadia’s Thomasina to the Ada Lovelace’s recent historical cameo in the ART’s Futurity. I usually take issue anytime contemporary politics are grafted onto historical or period fiction, so needless to say, I don’t always go for the Madame Curie biopics, and I took my seat at The How and the Why with low expectations.
But I was completely surprised. The How and the Why isn’t a perfect play, but I can’t imagine a more artful mingling of meditations on womanhood, being a woman in science, and scientific ideas themselves. For such a comic and accessible text, The How and the Why is intricately laced with depth and metaphor, tying its scientific content to its narrative. To do this, playwright Sarah Treem borrows two theories of evolutionary anthropology that aren’t unweighted by feminist politics.
First, there’s the grandmother hypothesis, which posits that menopause (or female life beyond fertility) is a human adaptation that provided groups of early humans with additional female caregivers, who weren’t occupied by a state of perpetual pregnancy like their younger counterparts. The theory partially relies on the idea that early humans were not hunter-gatherers, but rather gatherer-hunters, throwing sand in the eyes of the patriarchal assumption that the hunt is king. So, the lengthy period our children have to grow and develop their brains is biologically there because of grandma being around. I’m pushing my explanation of a theory meant to explain the biological conundrum of menopause to one that, more or less, explains our entire existence because a) the play does too and b) the play spends a little too much time pitting its appropriated theories against an imaginary misogynist beast. Peer review gets tied up in the paternal versus the maternal and, it’s assumed, that modern science views menstruation as shameful.
But, Zelda Kahn (Debra Wise), the scientist behind the grandmother hypothesis in The How and the Why‘s universe is comfortable in her position as a long-tenured professor with the bulk of a seminal career behind her. Her battles have been fought and won. Zelda has made her sacrifices and the play opens with her greatest sacrifice strolling into her office one day. Forgive the spoiler, but Rachel Hardeman, the daughter Zelda once gave up for adoption in choosing an academic career over motherhood, has sought out her birth mother.
Rachel, a budding and ambitious scientist in the same field as Zelda (so Zelda is kind of Rachel’s metaphorical mother as well), has a theory of her own and the events of the play are centered around Rachel presenting it at a major conference. Rachel’s theory is a little more radical, while more rooted in hard biology than anthropology (thus it’s more prone than Zelda’s to empirical arguments against it). She claims that menstruation is a mechanism women evolved in order to rid their bodies of the pathogens sperm carry. But, if menstruation is defense, then menopause is nothing more than a breaking down of that defense and, biologically, it doesn’t make sense that women would live past menopause, especially if they remain sexually active.
Despite Rachel’s accusational theories, Zelda isn’t threatened by the prospect of Rachel nullifying her life’s work. It’s not due to an emotional debt or love, but rather a sense of humility and perspective that has come to her with age, as well a firm grip on the scientific process. Rachel, in a youthful and somewhat broken zealousness, takes attacks on her theory deeply personally.
Much of the play’s substance comes in the form of Zelda’s advice for Rachel and how their feminist perspectives differ. Rachel refuses to participate in the institution of marriage, but begins the play completely willing to marry her academic career to a man, sharing credit for her theory. Zelda, who came up in a different time in a different feminist zeitgeist (yes, she’s had female lovers), shows her tough old-handedness and tells Rachel to ditch the BF and go solo with her theory. But she advises Rachel to marry and reap the tax benefits.
What makes the play great, and where it exceeded my expectations, is how it never rests in one simple theory; one clear explanation of how things are and why. For instance, Rachel’s chief critic is not only a woman, but one of Zelda’s old students. What seems to maybe be Zelda’s backhanded support of her long-lost daughter’s work, becomes an issue of another kind of biology (I won’t spoil this). Evolutionary anthropology and biology might pull from studies of isolated human cultures, primates, and biology, but they will always be theoretical sciences. Evolution makes sense and is provable up to a point, but much of how, why, and what human beings have evolved is qualitative and interpretive. Playwright Sarah Treem has done well building this uncertainty into her text, stocking the play with clever contradictions and arguments that let both science and people be theoretical.