Consider the Pap smear. For those with female reproductive organs and access to health care, it's a familiar procedure, part of a regular gynecological examination and, if the exam results are unconcerning, probably not thought about again until the next check-up rolls around. But since its development and application in the mid-20th century as an early screening for cervical cancer, it has indisputably saved millions of lives.
In "Nan and the Lower Body," Jessica Dickey's one-act play receiving its world premiere from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, the Pap smear gets its due as a major medical milestone, and audiences get an informative, funny and touching peek into both the science and the scientists behind it, as well as a timely reminder of how science has too often neglected the health care concerns of half the population.
The Pap smear gets its name from the physician who developed it: George Papanicolaou, known as "Dr. Pap." "Nan and the Lower Body" is set in 1952, when the Greek immigrant Papanicolaou is working in a laboratory in the anatomy department at Cornell University. The titular Nan is Grace "Nan'' Day, Dr. Pap's newly hired lab trainee (the only woman, he notes, to have applied for the position).
Nan and Dr. Pap share a passion for science, a belief in women's rights and a strong desire to make their mark on the world. While the overbearingly enthusiastic Dr. Pap (Christopher Daftsios) is a bit much for Nan at first, they soon form a tight bond and a productive partnership in cytology. Also in the cast are the endearing Jeffrey Brian Adams as Nan's minister husband Ted, and Lisa Ramirez as Dr. Pap's spirited wife Mache, whose unfailing support over the years has been key to the doctor's scientific achievements.
Tensions both internal and external appear over the course of the play. Nan struggles with a mysterious health affliction, and she and Ted gently butt heads when it comes to career and family expectations. Meanwhile, Mache struggles with her own aging and changing body, and fears what those changes may mean for her personal and working relationship with her husband.
The tone of Dickey's play is often funny, with humor being wrought, for instance, from the way the word "vagina" can make people — especially men — squirm in discomfort. There are plenty of poignant moments too, including the comic-turned-serious scene in which Nan and Mache describe many of the positives and negatives that come along with having a vagina, and when Nan recalls to Dr. Pap the many women she has known who've died of cancer.
While the play doesn't necessarily require elaborate scenic design, audiences are nevertheless treated to absolutely gorgeous work by Nina Ball, who's created a marvelous, dollhouse-like set that switches between the midcentury laboratory (who knew a lab could look so charming?) and the cozy Papanicolaou home. I actually let out a murmur of delight at the first change of scene.
Cathleen Edwards provides attractive 1950s-style clothing and, in the program, shares a moving account of her own personal experiences with cervical cancer and menopause.
"Nan and the Lower Body" is a blend of fact and fiction. Dickey's grandmother, Nan, really did work as a cytologist for years and the play follows her life story (however, it is likely just family legend that she worked with Dr. Pap himself).
While the show celebrates the achievements of Papanicolaou, it is really a tribute to Dickey's grandmother, and a chance for the playwright to appreciate her fictional counterpart in ways in which she didn't in real life. And while it's a nice idea, a little autobiography goes a long way here.
The superfluous inclusion of Dickey herself into the story is the play's weakest point.
The show was a part of TheatreWorks' 2019 New Works Festival and its planned full staging was, as were so many things, postponed by the pandemic. Skillfully directed by New Works leader Giovanna Sardelli, the play's premiere feels all the more relevant now, as noted in the program, thanks to the ongoing battle over reproductive rights in the United States, exemplified by the Supreme Court's recent overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Ultimately, "Nan and the Lower Body" leaves one deeply thankful for science and the people who've dedicated their lives to using it for good, and transforms what could be a clinical subject into a human one. As Dr. Pap puts it, in the show's most memorable line, "Science should always be personal. It's too important to be anything else."
"Nan and the Lower Body" runs through Aug. 7 at Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For more information, visit theatreworks.org.