Lifestyle & Culture

Biology, Destiny and All That

February 22, 2017

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Valerie Leonard and Katie deBuys play evolutionary biologists undergoing their own evolution in The How and the Why. / Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

WHEN’S THE LAST time you thought about menstruation? For me, it was last Thursday night when I saw The How and the Why at Theater J in Dupont Circle.

Those of us who are not evolutionary biologists will learn that we’ve (meaning them, not me) long understood the “how” of menstruation but not the “why”—why it takes place in the way it does and then, moreover, why it stops. Turns out there are two major theories, both of which get exposition in the play, which, being by Sarah Treem, of The Affair, House of Cards and HBO’s In Treatment, boasts crackling dialogue pitted against intense moments when the world telescopes down to one long hug.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this gripping two-woman drama; 1st Stage out at Tysons Corner put on a stunning  version of it half a dozen years ago. But it was the first time I focused on how the women—the scientist reaching the end of her career and the grad student trying to break into the field—soared with excitement as they homed in on arguments for and against the “grandmother theory” (that women, despite evolutionary logic, live beyond their reproductive years in order to help raise their group’s children) and the “protection against toxic sperm” theory (that sperm carry bacteria into a woman’s body that have to be fended off). The moments came and went fast, but they were crystal clear.

Rather than defend her theory, the older woman, who never married, is really trying to defend her love of work, and probably not just her work. The younger one is defending her love attachment but seems to come alive only when sparring with the older scientist over the details of their shared scientific goal.

There’s the scent of the old “women can’t have it all” in the older scientist’s position, but she’s really more focused on celebrating those moments when you’re deep into your work, figuring things out, experiencing, for lack of a better word, an epiphany—or even, for some of us, just a decently crafted sentence. That, she says, is when time seems to stand still. And it may be even better than the “just us, just now” feeling we get from love.

The renowned older scientist gave up more than love: She gave up a child. So her arguments are seen against a particularly brutal backdrop.

What the young woman alludes to, the questions that haunt a lot of us, are: Okay, so what if I give up my brilliant career to make love and family happen—and then that love falls apart or I can’t have a family of my own? Or, what if I give up on the idea of love and relationship—but then it turns out I don’t have a brilliant new theory to propose or perhaps even much more than a middling career?

Playwright Sarah Treem doesn’t flesh out the “what if” questions. But sometimes it’s enough for a playwright simply to allow them to be asked.

Treem doesn’t mince words: We see what we want to see, believe what we want to believe; that’s where she leaves us. It’s where we’ve been for a long time, but it’s useful to see it played out again.

—Nancy McKeon

The How and the Why plays at Theater J through March 12. Theatre J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.

A moment of congratulation in Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why, with Valerie Leonard and Katie deBuys. / Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

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