Rachel (l. Martha Brigham*) explains her theory on menstruation to Zelda (r. Nancy Carlin*) in Aurora’s West Coast Premiere of The How and The Why. Photo: David Allen
Rachel (l. Martha Brigham) explains her theory on menstruation to Zelda (r. Nancy Carlin) in Aurora’s The How and The Why. Photo: David Allen

It’s a rare treat when an evening at the theatre can engross, educate and entertain, all in one performance.

The How and the Why, written by Sarah Treem (Showtime’s The Affair, HBO’s In Treatment and Netflix’s House of Cards) with two especially talented actors, Nancy Carlin (The Monster-Builder, Hysteria, Benefactors) and Martha Brigham (San Francisco Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse), under the excellent directorship of Joy Carlin (Talley’s Folly, After the Revolution, Body Awareness) is that perfect drama.

The play is sometimes challenging, occasionally humorous, but always a thought-provoking dialogue between two women evolutionary biologists who meet for the first time, but have much in common.

Sparks fly when 28-year-old graduate student Rachel (Martha Brigham) meets the older and eminent professor Zelda (Nancy Carlin) in Zelda’s unnamed university office (presumably Harvard, as becomes apparent from the Act II set). Both women are uneasy; there are false starts. As they feel their way into a conversation about evolutionary biology, they are on safer ground.

Rachel has a revolutionary theory about why women menstruate when few mammals do — it helps to flush out harmful microbes and toxins introduced by sperm. Don’t worry. The discussion about women’s reproductive systems won’t make the audience squeamish.

Rachel’s menstruation concept is based on MacArthur genius grantwinner Margie Profet’s 1993 work on the same subject. In the play, Rachel tells Zelda that her hypothesis came to her in a dream. Profet gave credit to a dream as well. Profet faced ridicule for her theory, as, unfortunately, does Rachel. In fact Profet’s career went sideways and she lost touch with family and friends for ten years.

Zelda has also proposed a hypothesis that has caused her personal angst. Her grandmother hypothesis (similar to the thesis first proposed by George C. Williams) is based on the evolutionary advantage gained by primitive peoples because menopausal mothers helped to raise their daughters’ children.

Playwright Sarah Treem incorporates into The How and the Why fascinating discussions about women’s roles in the male-dominated world of science, the fear of revolutionary ideas, and finding meaning in life through work. Rachel and Zelda, who are quite different, yet alike in profound ways, argue fiercely, yet ultimately work together to hash out creative scientific concepts.

Equal time is given to the conduct of the characters’ personal lives, through which author Treem explores quandaries faced by all working women. Why has Zelda never married? Is Zelda satisfied with her success, despite what she has given up to achieve it? Why is Rachel prepared to share her stage with her seemingly undeserving boyfriend, Dean? And what of a future relationship between Rachel and Zelda?

All of these big ideas are presented at Aurora’s small Harry’s Upstage Theatre, which seats only 50 people. Yet, in addition to the fine acting and directing, the sets and lighting (Kent Dorsey) and costumes (Christine Dougherty) are as professional is one expects from Aurora.

Of course, the small size of the theatre means that tickets will sell quickly. So don’t wait to see this terrifically thoughtful and stimulating play.

The How and the Why runs through May 22. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit Aurora Theatre online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...