Jessica Dickey never thought that her play about the Pap smear would premiere at such a time when reproductive rights are once again in the spotlight.
“Nan and the Lower Body,” the play Dickey started writing about six years ago, takes place in 1952. It features Dr. George Papanicolaou and his creation of the Pap smear, the technology that detects cervical cancers and has saved the lives of millions. It is also centered on Papanicolaou’s collaboration with his new lab assistant, Nan Day.
The 90-minute play was first scheduled to be presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in 2020, but it got postponed twice because of the pandemic. It finally receives its world premiere Wednesday at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.
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The play has landed in a fortunate position to be relevant to a national event, Dickey says. “It came from a personal and emotional impulse, but it just happens to have political implications at the moment.”
The personal impulse stemmed from the story of Dickey’s maternal grandmother, Nan, the archetype for Papanicolaou’s lab assistant in the play. The assistant was named after her grandmother, a former cytologist, and her involvement in Papanicolaou’s study came from Dickey’s fantasy.
When her grandmother died when she was 24, Dickey’s uncle told her that her grandmother had possibly worked in the lab of Papanicolaou, learning the technique of reading a Pap smear. Although Dickey had been close to Nan since she was a child, she didn’t know much about Nan’s professional identity and how she was able to make an interesting career when many women didn’t have one at all.
Dickey first rummaged around for evidence of where or when her grandmother might have worked in the lab, but soon she realized she didn’t care.
“I was so attached to this possibility of my grandmother,” she says. “I really wanted to be with her in a different way and in a way that honored her fullness of personhood more than I was able to as a child and as a young adult.”
The play, therefore, was written based on both facts of how the Pap smear was invented and the fantasia of Nan Day’s possible work life. Dickey did thorough research to ensure the science part was completely accurate, such as how Papanicolaou studied menstruation in guinea pigs and stumbled upon the fact that dysplastic cells could be seen with a microscope.
“It’s like the science is the little boat we’re in, but there are people inside riding the boat. I hope that the audience gets in the boat with Dr. Papanicolaou and Nan,” she says.
“Nan and the Lower Body” first met an audience through a reading workshop at TheatreWorks’ 2019 New Works Festival in Palo Alto. While the actors were telling the story behind the music stands, Dickey felt the great enthusiasm and recognition of the audience, as did the play’s director, Giovanna Sardelli.
“We knew instantly we would program this play in a future season,” Sardelli recalls of her feeling at the 2019 New Works Festival.
For Sardelli, theaters should be a place where people can get inspired and uplifted. As an artistic associate and director of New Works, part of her job was to curate the festival and find new plays for TheatreWorks.
And the first time she read a draft of “Nan and the Lower Body,” she fell in love with it.
Encountering the play during a time when the #MeToo movement was in swing, Sardelli says she was fascinated by Papanicolaou’s desire to produce life and how he cared for women when they were not even regarded as citizens.
“This is the conversation I want to have about women and how we should be cared for and treated,” Sardelli says.
Sardelli always knows that women’s suffering is a source of drama. When she was an actress, she was taught in one of her stage combat classes that actresses should learn how to take a punch and how to be slapped.
“I was from the older generation that laughed things off — just to keep moving forward — that probably we shouldn’t have,” Sardelli says.
The play’s rehearsal room has been a place of respite from the outside world for her. Not only the story of Papanicolaou and Nan Day is inspiring, but also the other two characters, Papanicolaou’s wife, Mache Papanicolaou, and Nan Day’s husband, Ted Day, also embody stories of those “who are not heroes but have chosen to do good with their lives.”
As “Nan and the Lower Body” premieres on Wednesday, the first three nights will be preview performances, where the play can still change based on audience response. The official opening day of the play is Saturday.
Dickey calls the play an emotional comedy. “It’s a play that can get us laughing and literally warm up our chests and hearts, and then the deeper tones of the piece can enter and land,” she says.
She still remembers that she went into rehearsal on June 24, the day that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and she says it felt like a relief to at least be able to work on this play.
Dickey hopes the audience can also experience a fun and healing process through watching the play.
“We’ve arrived at this moment when we cannot take something like the Pap smear for granted,” she says.
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of Jessica Dickey’s “Nan and the Lower Body,” directed by Giovanna Sardelli, runs from Wednesday to Aug. 7 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For information and tickets, visit https://theatreworks.org/.