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Uneven ‘How and Why’ should have stuck to science, not human nature

Elizabeth Ledo (left) Janet Ulrich Brooks star “The How Why” TimeLine Theatre. | PHOTO BY LARA GOETSCH

Elizabeth Ledo (left) and Janet Ulrich Brooks star in “The How and the Why” at TimeLine Theatre. | PHOTO BY LARA GOETSCH

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Somewhat Recommended

When: Through April 6

Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington

Tickets: $35-$48

Info: (773) 281-8463, ext. 6;

Run time: 1 hour and 55 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: February 9, 2014 8:53PM

Stroll through the lobby of TimeLine Theatre during the next couple of months and you will find yourself in “The Hall of Fame of Women Scientists,” where the walls are decked out with dozens of portraits of those who made significant contributions to the fields of physics, chemistry and biology despite the fact that for centuries they were shut out of higher education and the almost exclusively male preserves where such work was undertaken.

This exhibition is a fine warmup for Sarah Treem’s drama “The How and The Why.” The overall production — directed by Keira Fromm and performed by Janet Ulrich Brooks and Elizabeth Ledo — is first-rate. The play is less so. If only Treem (who was a staff writer for HBO’s excellent “In Treatment” series), had stuck to science, which she makes exciting and provocative, and applied a far less heavy hand to the personal, which too often suggests a mix of slightly elevated Lifetime television pablum and Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.”

The essential problems at work here are apparent right from the opening scene as the girlish Rachel Hardeman (Ledo), a 28-year-old post-doctoral student from New York University, nervously enters the handsome office of senior professor Zelda Kahn (Brooks) in Cambridge, Mass. It is a tense meeting on both sides (we will discover why later), and not at all professional, though perhaps designed to suggest that two women might interact in different ways than two men.

We soon learn that Zelda, a member of the baby boom generation, and a product of the feminist movement, forged her formidable career while in her late twenties — at a time when women were still more or less invisible in the sciences. Her breakthrough theory, dubbed “the grandmother hypothesis,” argued that menopause (which occurs in very few mammals) gave an evolutionary advantage to primitive humans because it enabled them to serve as caretakers and food gatherers while daughters were busy dealing with constant pregnancies and nursing. Her theory was not only groundbreaking, but dealt with a subject neglected by men. Rachel has begun formulating a very different theory about menopause, and one she suspects might be threatening to Zelda. She believes that menstruation evolved in humans as a monthly “sanitizing process” — one that cleansed the uterus of pathenogen-carrying sperm in preparation for a healthy pregnancy.

But there is more, and a spoiler alert is in order here, for as it happens, Rachel has recently learned that Zelda was the birth mother who gave her up for adoption immediately after she was born.Zelda’s choices in life, Rachel’s unresolved insecurities, and the complex relationships between mother and daughter, mentor and student, and men and women become the focus of the play. The problem here is that each woman becomes a generational icon for personal quandaries that have been dealt with countless times before. And the many fateful coincidences in the story stretch belief far beyond the breaking point.

If only the play kept its focus on the scientific arguments. They are just so much more interesting.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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