note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
You needn’t be a scientist to enjoy The Nora Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Treem’s fascinating two-act, fast-paced play, “The How and the Why,” currently making its New England premiere at Central Square Theater.
For two theatergoers, Ukrainian sisters who immigrated here 20 years ago, Underground Railway Theater Artistic Director Debra Wise and Samantha Richert’s brilliant performances resonated loud and clear.
Like the two actresses portraying evolutionary biologists --- one an established older scientist, the other, an upcoming, revolutionary thinker with advanced theories who’s challenging her --- the animated sisters easily identified with them. They, too, had battled for equality and recognition among their Ukrainian male cohorts.
For us less cerebral theatergoers, celebrated Boston director Daniel Gidron has created an entertaining sparring match between Wise as established scientist, Zelda Kahn, and Richert as fiery, intense graduate student, Rachel Hardeman.
By small degrees, like a flag slowly unfurling, Treem reveals the women’s surprising relationship and its complications.
Seated in Eric Levenson’s handsome set that shifts from Kahn’s office in Cambridge to a seedier neighborhood bar-restaurant, Kahn is sophistication and experience incarnate. She traces her goals, setbacks, and triumphs,relishing her fame. She toys, cat-and-mouse-like at times, her attitude towards this quixotic, petulant student amused, playful, yet instructive.
Rachel has arrived in Zelda’s office on the eve of a conference involving scientific giants. As Rachel reveals her theory (actually based on Margie Profet’s “Menstruation as a Defense,” her groundbreaking theory citing “menstruation as a defense against pathogens transported by sperm,”), Zelda praises it as revolutionary and insists Rachel present it at the conference. Zelda is a board member and can get Rachel in, but she insists Rachel present it by herself, and not share credit with Dean, her boyfriend.
Zelda wants Rachel to persist on her own power, but the younger woman is suspicious, sarcastic, guarded, knowing her theory challenges Zelda’s acclaimed “Grandmother Hypothesis,” (actually based on anthropologist Kristin Hawkes’ groundbreaking evolutionary-sociological theory).
Regardless, Zelda appears supportive. She sees her own traits in Rachel and has her own reasons for wanting the beautiful 29-year-old to persist. Reluctantly, Rachel admits she’s aware nobody would listen to her idea if it didn’t also bear a male name.
Hardeman artfully shifts from brash, assured, blustery and self-confident to fear of being ridiculed and losing her boyfriend. She wants love, a home and family. “Love is magic,” she says. But never-married Zelda disagrees. She basks in the glory of succeeding in a man’s field.
Besides their love of science and their super intellectual ability to conjure up remarkable theories, the women share another bond, which Treem ekes out inductively, keeping the audience’s attention rapt.
With theatergoers located nearby, on three sides, Scott Pinckney’s lighting and Dewey Dellay’s sound design enhance and intensify this provocative production.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two person play, written by Sarah Treem, produced by The Nora Theatre Company. Appearing through Oct. 21, Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m., at Central Square Theatre, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. Tickets begin at $15; student,senior and group discounts. Call 866-811-4111 or visit CentralSquareTheater.org