Annie Arbuckle and Bronwen Smith in the Aenigma Theatre production of The How and The Why.
Annie Arbuckle and Bronwen Smith in the Aenigma Theatre production of The How and The Why.

Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why supplies no easy, glib answers.  Instead, it leads the audience on a voyage of discovery, allowing it to draw its own conclusions.

This finely crafted, two-handed tour de force explores two hypotheses – one on why women menstruate, and the other on the evolutionary reasons behind menopause.  Both are well argued but flawed.

Two evolutionary biologists – the middle-aged, established Zelda Kahn, and a younger, brilliant student Rachel Hardeman – crisscross the divide between their professional positions and personal lives. The play’s exposure of the double standards women face in the sciences draws attention to one of the reasons for the scarcity of women in the field.

But more importantly, The How and the Why unravels the complex nuances of human struggles, relationships and behaviours.  And that’s its real strength.

As the play opens, Kahn, subtly drawn by Bronwen Smith, is discovered poring over papers and text books at her cluttered office desk.  Her reverie is brutally interrupted by the unannounced arrival of a disgruntled Hardeman, who had hoped to present her hypothesis at a conference organized by the older biologist.

But that’s just the tip of a gigantic iceberg.  There is more to these two characters than meets the eye.

For instance, Annie Arbuckle portrays Rachel Hardeman in the opening scenes with a confusing harshness bordering on bad manners, even rudeness. But any alienation the audience might feel is dispersed as the reasons behind her attitude gradually unfold and her performance grows in depth.

Kahn nurses secrets too.

Smith’s detailed presentation of Zelda’s “Grandmother” hypothesis might have palled if Tanya Mathivanan’s skillful direction hadn’t kept the audience engaged with the movement of her actors around the minimalist set, effectively designed by Sarah Melo and Ro Miller.

Both Arbuckle and Smith peel away the layers of their characters with compassion and sensitivity.  They hold pauses with a gripping intensity that would impress Samuel Becket aficionados.  And they play off each other with deftness, precision and good humour.

As intellectual arguments morph into emotional ones, peppered at times with jocular irony and at others with gut-wrenching pathos, personal revelations trump each other, one after another.

The roller coaster journey ends positively with Zelda’s response of courage and hope when Rachel asks if her whole life will be “this hard.”  The How and the Why may not have all the answers but it’s certainly full of worthwhile suggestions.

The How and The Why by Sarah Treem. Directed by Tanya Mathivanan. An Aenigma Theatre production. On stage at Studio 1398 (1398 Cartwright St, Granville Island, Vancouver) until November 17. Visit aenigmatheatre.com for tickets and information.