‘How and Why’ explores sacrifice of female scientists

CAMBRIDGE — Playwrights usually approach scientific themes with extreme caution. Unless the writing is strong, the material can come across as dry and colorless, much like the stereotype about the scientist who never comes of his lab to see the light of day.
The challenge is to explain subject matter in such a way that makes it accessible to the average theater-goer while also humanizing the subjects — usually scientists, many of whom are not known for their wild and crazy lifestyles.

Debra Wise and Samantha Richert in a scene from the Nora Theatre’s “The
How and the Why.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair photography

Since its opening five years ago, the Central Square Theatre has embraced plays with scientific themes, and many have emerged as critical successes, including the engrossing 2011 production of “Breaking the Code,” or the production of “Photograph 51” earlier this year. The theater’s two resident companies, the Nora Theatre and the Underground Railway Theatre (URT), are members of the Catalyst

Collaborative@MIT, a science-theater collaborative between MIT and the two companies that provides crucial support for the two companies and a nurturing neighbor with a ready-made audience for scientific works.Debra Wise, artistic director of the URT, is co-director of the collaborative and has contributed her talents to several of the productions; Wise earned a 2011 IRNE nomination for her performance as Sara Turing in “Breaking the Code.”
Wise is back in a white lab coat again, so to speak, this time to co-star in Nora Theatre’s production of Sarah Treem’s “The How and the Why,” now at Central Square through Nov. 4.
Treem, an award-winning writer for the HBO series “In Treatment,” has centered her work around two works she read about in a book about female physiology: “The Grandmother Hypothesis,” which looks at the existence of menopause and the years women live after their child-bearing years are over; and “The Toxicity of Sperm,” a theory that has to do with menstruation.
On the night before an important national conference Zelda Khan (Wise), a 56-year-old evolutionary biologist, is visited by an ambitious graduate student from NYU named Rachel Hardeman (Samantha Richert).
Rachel is also finding her way in the world of evolutionary biology — “What are the odds,” asks Zelda — hinting at a relationship to be revealed later.
Khan has long since made her mark in the male-dominated field with the aforementioned “Grandmother Hypothesis” — and has ridden her theory’s coattails to tenure and a permanent place among the elite in her field.
Rachel has come to her with a theory of her own that concerns the toxicity of male sperm and the resulting effect on the process of menstruation.
Zelda appears to be intrigued; she sees in Rachel a lot of herself at that age. Although Rachel’s abstract has been passed over for inclusion in the conference, a late slot has opened up and Zelda urges a hesitant Rachel to present her theory at the conference.
The first act does get a big bogged down when the discussion of the nuts and bolts of the various theories — this classics major’s eye tended to glaze over at times — but Treem seems to know when enough is enough and returns to the relationship between the two women.
The second act opens in a dumpy Boston bar. Rachel has presented her theory at the conference, and it was a self-admitted disaster.
One by one, Treem answers the questions we had about the two women’s relationship; in peeling back the layers of the onion, secrets are revealed and the women exchange some uncomfortable truths.
The outwardly steely exterior of Zelda gradually gives way to vulnerability; her self-assurance and self-worth is slowly chipped away.
“The How and the Why” explores the innate difficulties that women face while trying to break through in a male-dominated world, the extra scrutiny given to their theories, and the sacrifices women often have to make to achieve their dreams.
The competition among scientists when it comes to theories and breakthroughs is bloodsport, and one scientist’s breakthrough may well be another’s Waterloo. When theories collide and compete, there will be a winner and a loser.
Richert, a recent graduate of Brandeis’ MFA program, holds her own with Wise throughout, no easy task, and those who wade through some of the scientific muck in the first half are richly rewarded in the second act.
An aside: The Nora Theatre dramaturgs do an exceptional job explaining the concepts behind the biological theories that are at the center of the play, the obstacles that have faced female scientists through the years, and they also celebrate those who have overcome those obstacles. Get to the theater early and give yourself enough time to enjoy their work.
The Nora Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Treem’s “The How and the Why,” through Nov. 4 at the Central Square Theatre, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. Directed by Daniel Gidron. For tickets, go to centralsquaretheater.org.