Papsolutely Fabulous: ‘Nan and the Lower Body’ Brings Feminist Issues to the Stage

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A man in a grey suit and a woman in a 1950s-period grey dress and belt stand before a black board with chalk writing on it. The woman is smiling and holding up a speculum.
Elissa Beth Stebbins as Nan Day, an ambitious lab assistant, alongside Jeffrey Brian Adams as her husband Ted. (Alessandra Mello/ Courtesy of TheatreWorks)

There is no swift way to sum up the multitudes present in Nan and the Lower Body. The play, written by Jessica Dickey, directed by Giovanna Sardelli and presented onstage in Palo Alto by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, is an exploration of everything it means to be a woman. It touches on the way women's health has been traditionally neglected by the medical community. It ponders gender roles and the ways women have been sidelined by patriarchal culture. It even quietly highlights the stoicism women develop because of the pain—both physical and emotional—that is inherent to living in a female body.

The play, which is based on real-life events, revolves around four characters. On one side there's Nan, a conscientious cytologist in training, and her loving husband Ted, a minister who considers himself progressive but still puts his goals before hers. On the other there's the quirky Dr. Papanicolaou, who has just developed the life-saving Pap smear, and his wife Mache, a bold woman who loves music, ouzo and delivering zingers.

A woman in a lilac dress sits at a dining table and speaks to another seated woman, wearing grey skirt and pink shirt. To her right is a young man wearing a grey suit. To her left, an older man in a grey suit pours a drink at the table. All are wearing period clothing from the 1950s. Behind them are shelves full of books and boardgames.
Nan (Slissa Beth Stebbins) and Ted (Jeffrey Brian Adams) attend a dinner at the home of Dr. Papanicolaou (Christopher Daftsios) and Mache (Lisa Ramirez). (Alessandra Mello/ Courtesy of TheatreWorks)

The four actors in these roles (Elissa Beth Stebbins, Jeffrey Brian Adams, Christopher Daftsios and Lisa Ramirez) have a sparkling chemistry that facilitates a surprising number of laugh-out-loud moments. That humor is key to getting Nan and the Lower Body's many salient points across. (An ongoing joke about the way the word "vagina" makes certain people squirm is a particular joy.)

There are a number of moments in Nan that shouldn't work on the stage, but do: the pap smear that is performed on Nan towards the end of the play. The moment Mache angrily throws a box of slides (containing vaginal fluid) into the middle of an in-use dining table. The conversation between Dr. Papanicolaou and Ted about whether or not women are the superior sex. In the wrong hands, all would be awkward—even cringe-worthy. Instead, these scenes work because of sharp dialogue, the aforementioned cast chemistry and Sardelli's masterful direction. It helps that the two sets—the lab where Dr. Papanicolaou and Nan work, and a multi-dimensional living room—are beautifully detailed and realistic.

A grey haired man and a young woman, both wearing white lab coats work in a lab. In front of them is a table with a microscope on it. Behind them a black board with diagrams of cells on it and shelves full of medical bottles.
Dr. Papanicolaou and Nan working in the lab. (Alessandra Mello/ Courtesy of TheatreWorks)

The plot hinges on two things: whether or not Nan will sacrifice her rewarding work to put her husband's needs first, and her desire to find out where her chronic physical pain comes from. Neither ends up being the point of the play. Rather, Nan and the Lower Body's greatest concerns are about how cis women's lives are impacted by the bodies they're born into.

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While even seasoned feminists will walk away from the play with new philosophies to ponder, it's essential to note that there is a tonal shift during the play's finale that is deeply jarring. Playwright Jessica Dickey—the granddaughter of the real-life Nan—inserts her own story into the final five minutes in a way that jarringly shifts focus. It feels unnecessary, especially since Dickey also delivers her perspective on her grandmother's work with a moving personal essay in the play's program. A better ending would have been simply to allow Dr. Papanicolaou's narration to sum up what happened in the rest of the characters' lives.

That's not to say that Nan and the Lower Body isn't worthy of your time. The vast majority of the play is an entertaining and effective exploration of women's issues performed in an original and compelling context. One only wishes that an editor had been on hand to keep the focus unerringly on the fascinating woman at the center of the piece, Nan Day.

'Nan and the Lower Body' is at the Lucie Stern Theatre (1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto) through Aug. 7. Details here