Sarah Treem's premise for "The How and the Why," now making its Chicago debut via TimeLine Theatre Company, sounds dry on the surface. It's about two female biologists of different generations who square off over opposing evolutionary theories and their personal struggles to build careers in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field.
But far from feeling like a science class or a feminist rant, "The How and the Why" is an engrossing drama full of heated debate and heightened revelations.
"The How and the Why"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago, (773) 281-8463, timelinetheatre.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (8:30 p.m. March 5), 8 p.m. Friday (no show March 14), 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (also 6 p.m. March 16); through April 6
Running time: About two hours, with intermission
Parking: Metered street parking
Rating: For teens and older
Treem, whose TV writing credits include Netflix's "House of Cards" and HBO's "In Treatment," shows in "The How and the Why" how adept she is at mixing thought-provoking scientific ideas with prodding plot complications. Audiences are kept guessing at whether Treem's two leading ladies will end up as dedicated friends or foes.
In one corner you have Zelda Kahn (Janet Ulrich Brooks), an esteemed and established professor of evolutionary biology famed for pioneering "the grandmother hypothesis." This idea theorizes that menopause helped ancient humans advance genetically since it allowed surviving female relatives to offer extra help in raising offspring.
In the other corner is Rachel Hardeman (Elizabeth Ledo), a graduate student scientist in her late 20s who is eager to present her hypothesis that menstruation is a bodily defense against pathogens carried by men. If Rachel's hypothesis shifts the dialogue in evolutionary science, it could pose a threat to Zelda's past work and her reputation.
Treem also adds in an amazing coincidence that ties the two women together, though it's only explicitly discussed in the second act. Some might find this device a tad too emotionally manipulative and tidy for the plot, while scientists might also grumble about Treem's decision to steal others' scientific theories to suit her own fictional dramatic devices. Yet "The How and the Why" still works at showing what lengths the two women are willing to go to to further their careers, even in the face of self-doubt and resentment.
Along with serving up heady drama, Treem has created two juicy roles for women. So it's understandable that Brooks relentlessly pressed TimeLine artistic director PJ Powers to schedule "The How and the Why" in its 2013-14 season.
As Zelda, Brooks masterfully exudes a self-confidence and welcoming ease that also serves as a defensive front. It's a believable and no-nonsense performance of strength that conceals a certain amount of regret and resignation underneath.
As Rachel, Ledo gets to lead more with her character's emotions and insecurities, which she does with a searing intensity that is entirely convincing -- especially when she lashes out at what she sees as deeply personal and professional betrayals. Ledo also expertly shows off Rachel's burning drive to succeed, despite her initial setbacks.
Helping to fine-tune the strong performances is director Keira Fromm, who stages "The How and the Why" on a narrow rectangular stage that allows the audience to be up-close and personal.
Scenic designer Collette Pollard provides two comfortable and contrasting settings of Zelda's office and a college backroom bar, while sound designers Mikhail Fiskel and Connor Murray have devised a great ambient background soundscape to heighten the reality of the situations.
Now if "The How and the Why" were to be graded on "The Bechdel Test" -- a 1980s feminist movie-rating scale -- it would unquestionably pass with flying colors. But "The How and the Why" is not just a feminist drama. Rather, the play proves universal with its intelligent insights and how it dramatizes two people striving to defend their work and ideals.