The How and the Why at Aurora: A Densely Packed Exploration of Ideas and Emotions

2016-03-29-1459282200-7229804-AURORA1OFFICE.jpg

Nancy Carlin as a confident professor, right, and Martha Brigham as a nervous graduate student: a toast in academia

Photos by David Allen

Playwright Sarah Treem's The How and the Why runs less than two hours in its West Coast premiere at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. That's time enough for Treem and her skillful interpreters to charge across more intellectual and emotional terrain than some theaters will approach in a season.

Among the issues:

Fierce competition among scientists for recognition of their discoveries and themselves.

Struggles in the academic world for prestigious positions and grant funding.

Female attitudes about sex, relationships, men, motherhood and families.

And, uniquely, theories about the functions of menstruation and menopause. Treem drew those theories from respected scientific sources, explained them with clarity in passionate dialogue, and in many cases debunked the same ideas through arguments from comparably esteemed researchers. Her goal was obviously dramatic, not polemic.

She did it while maintaining a narrative flow that rarely turns sluggish or didactic in this compelling production, directed by Bay Area stage legend Joy Carlin. Despite occasional lapses into melodramatics and a plot that depends heavily on coincidences that defy belief, the play is more likely to inspire discussion of its premises than flaws in its structure.

Those premises surface in conversation and debate between a 50ish professor (Nancy Carlin) who has won major international prizes and a 28-year-old graduate student (Martha Brigham) who covets such status. The prof, Zelda, is comfortably ensconced at a university that seems to be Harvard; the student, Rachel, attends NYU. Both specialize in evolutionary biology, with a focus on women.

Two events that lead them to connect: One is a high-powered conference of biologists on Zelda's campus; the second is a personal discovery by Rachel. Saying more about the latter would spoil one of the show's crucial surprises.

Zelda's status arises largely from her "grandmother hypothesis," which posits that humans evolved because some distant ancestor experienced menopause, then lived on to care for the children of her own offspring, thus enabling them to pursue activities that expanded their experience and awareness. Given those keys, their evolutionary ladder pointed upward.

Rachel's scholarly specialty is menopause, examined in studies that lead her to declare that she has found an explanation that will "change everything. The way women think about their bodies. The way that men think about women's bodies. The way people have sex." Those immodest assertions stem from her conclusion that menopause is a mechanism to flush out pathogens -- bacteria, viruses and such -- that accompany sperm into the female body.

2016-03-29-1459282781-844364-AURORA2BARcopy.jpg

Carlin and Brigham in a dingy sports bar: a site for volatile insights

Beyond the intellectual connections and conflicts, the women share intimacies about romances past and present, and feelings about love, marriage, commitment and child-rearing. Neither is married, for reasons that essentially reflect generational differences, although both have experienced intense relationships with men. Too often, though, their reflections fall into the realm of soap-opera stereotypes about males as well as females.

Even at moments that stretch credibility to the utmost, however, the superbly modulated performances by both Carlin and Brigham command attention and empathy. Carlin develops Zelda as a poised woman who is accustomed to respect but allows that secure facade to drop when the right spark hits. Brigham carries Rachel through an immense emotional roller coaster, from timidity to assertiveness to outbursts of tears and panic.

Kent Dorsey designed the sets for the play's two acts, the first taking place in Zelda's well-appointed office and the second in a sports bar -- a site presumably chosen by Rachel -- that's festooned with Boston Bruins hockey sticks and memorabilia. Both sets serve well as backdrops for the action, but nothing about Rachel's personality tells me she would choose this grungy bar as a meeting place. But that's a very minor puzzle in a play that offers many, and delivers more grist for thought and argument than most events in a theater.

The How and the Why runs through May 22 in Harry's Upstage at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St.,Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$45, from 510-843-4822 or auroratheatre.org