Science, generations clash in ‘The How and the Why’

Sophia Brown and Amy Loui star in the New Jewish Theatre production of ‘The How and the Why.’  Photo: Eric Woolsey

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

“The How and the Why,” a brainy, talk-filled play by Sarah Treem, features high-energy performances by Amy Loui and Sophia Brown in the two-person cast, depicting brilliant scientists at different stages of their respective careers and personal lives.

Brown skillfully portrays Rachel Hardeman, 28, a prodigy in the field of evolutionary biology who meets for the first time with Zelda Kahn, 56, a highly respected and well-established figure in the same field. Loui captures the essence of Kahn’s complex character, one who has reached the peak of her career at the expense of a “normal” personal life.

The two scientists are aware of each other’s work, and respect the other’s intellectual brilliance even while they have significant differences in the way they interpret scientific data when it comes to reproduction, sexuality, nurturance, and family dynamics among humans and their primate cousins.

It is fortuitous that the New Jewish Theatre’s production of “The How and the Why” coincides with the recent successful cloning of twomonkeys in China. In order to continue with key aspects of her research, Rachel needs access to monkeys, and Zelda has a friend who might be able to assist Rachel in this quest.

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Under the fast-paced direction of Nancy Bell, the two scientists circle and stalk each other throughout the play’suninterrupted 90 minutes. Zelda has the polish and almost smugness of a career academic, while Rachel masks her anxiety with sarcasm and rage.

By turns feisty and nervous, Rachel is impressed with Zelda’s office, which she says looks masculine to her.

“You mean it looks significant,” replies the self-confidentZelda. 

Indeed, scenic designers Peter and Margery Spack deserve kudos for creating two distinct sets: the impressive interior of Zelda’s office in Cambridge, Mass., and a local dive bar in Boston, and filling these spaces with uncanny realism.

Zelda is condescending toward her youngercolleague as if to establish who is boss in their unfolding relationship. 

Zelda says, “My dear, I have 30 years of groundbreaking data behind me, dozens of publications, grants and a handful of global awards that are very difficult to come by. You have, by all accounts, an interesting idea.Believe me, I want to hear it.”

To Rachel, her idea is more than just interesting.

“It’s a very powerful idea,” she says. “It’s going to change everything.”

Rachel explains her theory in scientific terms, demonstrating her knowledge of the field of evolutionarybiology. She cites Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biologist,as having said:

“In biology, every issue is understandable fromtwo perspectives: the how and the why. The mechanism and function. The immediate explanation and the eternal one. In the case of female menstruation, we know the how … but we don’t know why.”

Zelda, from her perch of a respected veteranin their shared field, responds icily, “You haven’t said anything yet.”

Who will win this intellectual contest of wills? Will it be the experienced scholar with an established track record or the young and brash newcomer who seeks to smash some of the idols in their area of expertise?

As the play unfolds, the women come to realize that they can learn from each other, not only in the realm of science, but in the area of the trade-offs one must make in choosing whether to devote one’s entire life to career, or to seek a balance between the personal and the professional.

 “The How and the Why” makes for a superb evening of thought-provoking theater and it deserves a large audience.