The secrets in Sarah Treem’s intriguing intellectual drama, The How and the Why, reveal themselves with tantalizing slowness. Into the office of an academic busy at her work, a young woman enters softly, tentatively. We eventually learn that her name is Rachel (Natalie Beisner), and the academic is Zelda (Mary Wickliffe), an evolutionary biologist. It is clear that the women are meeting for the first time. Rachel is filled with angst and seems ready to bolt at the slightest provocation. We learn that she, too, is an evolutionary biologist at the graduate level. It is relatively easy to suss out that the relationship might be one of mother and daughter, even though they are clearly strangers. As the play progresses, bare sketches of character are filled in with vivid, emotional color, as regret, misunderstanding, and incorrect assumptions lead to angry clashes that must be soothed away. Rachel is bitter and antagonistic, while Zelda has more secrets that unfold as the play heads for a final reckoning.
Key to all the action is biological theory. As a gifted grad student, Rachel has come up with a radical, hypothesis that explains in graphic, anatomical terms, the mystery and purposes of the menses. In the play, Zelda made her mark years before with the “grandmother hypothesis,” which is also linked to the menstrual cycle, and posits that the evolution of the species is directly related to the care giving function of grandmothers. If all this sounds erudite and therefore boring, you would be wrong. These intellectual exchanges, fueled by the passion and emotions of relationship, are utterly spellbinding
As the older, more mature Zelda, Mary Wickliffe gives a splendid nuanced performance made more intimate by the close confines of the Little Fish Theatre. Natalie Beisner, is more expansive, wearing her heart on her sleeve, her life jumbled by ambition, intellect and love. Together they are extraordinary.
The production is simply mounted under the keen direction of Danielle Ozymandias. The scenic design by Phil Buono, with lighting by Stacey Adams, is adapted to serve both The How and the Why and its repertory partner, Rapture, Blister, Burn, reviewed last week by this writer. Little Fish Theatre is off to a rip roaring start in this new season. See both plays. You will be glad you did. They run through September 1 at Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre Street in San Pedro.