The who and the what

A thought-provoking exploration of womanhood

Two women, two generations: Rachel (Hannah Lockhart, left) and Zelda (Joyce Henderson).

Two women, two generations: Rachel (Hannah Lockhart, left) and Zelda (Joyce Henderson).

Photo by Amy Brown

The How and the Why shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through Sept. 24, at the Blue Room.
Tickets: $15
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

To create a sympathetically humanistic play from a script whose tension and conflict derive, or evolve, from scientific debate would seem a daunting proposition. But in the hands of local theater veterans—director Amanda Detmer and the two-person cast of Joyce Henderson and Hannah Lockhart—the Blue Room’s production of Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why meets the challenge.

The play’s two characters, Zelda (played by Henderson) and Rachel (Lockhart), are evolutionary scientists whose work involves researching and hypothesizing about the evolutionary justification for the human menstrual cycle. Treem uses this fascinating—albeit generally neglected, or sublimated—topic as a basis for exploring human relationships in general, with her two characters bouncing dialectic counterpoints back and forth like table tennis masters.

The play opens in Zelda’s academic office, succinctly realized by Amber Miller’s design of brick walls with arched windows looking out on autumn trees, a comfortable-looking leather visitor’s chair, an elegant but cluttered desk, books, plants and an incidental table littered with binders. Henderson’s Zelda—in short gray hair, a sumptuous white blouse and chunky necklace—is an obviously vital and confident professor and researcher. Enter Lockhart’s Rachel, looking every bit the harried grad student in faded jeans and a ponytail.

There’s an emotional edginess to the women’s meeting that reveals both the strength of character and intelligence possessed by both, but also hints at Rachel’s vulnerability and insecurity at meeting her more academically accomplished elder.

Their relationship provides vital subtext for the play’s dramatic tension. Gradually, the two achieve a fragile rapport over 10 a.m. champagne and begin to discuss Rachel’s research and hypothesis, which she wants to present at an upcoming forum. But her abstract—which posits a revolutionary theory that the menstrual cycle evolved as a means of protecting the uterus from the biological contamination introduced by penetration of the virus- and bacteria-bearing penis during sex—hasn’t been accepted for presentation by the forum’s male-dominated board of directors.

Zelda, who gained her academic reputation by developing the “Grandmother Hypothesis,” which explains menopause as an evolutionary development that freed older women in primitive societies to devote their later years to assisting the family by gathering food rather than remaining continually pregnant, is sympathetic to Rachel’s desire to share her hypothesis, which Rachel says “could change the way men and women have sex.” Though skeptical of Rachel’s logic, Zelda admires her adamance and agrees to sponsor her as a forum presenter.

The second act takes place in a seedy, somewhat nondescript bar where Rachel and Zelda meet some time after the forum presentation to discuss the audience’s reactions.

“Your opinion is the only one that matters,” Zelda says.

Working with two excellent and experienced actors who inhabit their roles with conviction, Detmer brings those characters to vividly realized life. The various tensions and the intimacy between Henderson and Lockhart was palpable, and in what could have otherwise been more of a scientific dialectic instead becomes a representation of two inquisitive minds and vulnerable human hearts struggling to accept and understand their own biological imperatives.