Jessica Dickey Provokes Reflections on Women’s Rights
by Amy Deng
What does it feel like to have a vagina? Nan Day, the cancer researcher in Jessica Dickey’s play, says it’s neither good nor bad, but rather confusing. In this entertaining and heartwarming play, Dickey spotlights women’s perspectives on their bodies and gender roles, provoking us to reflect on our beliefs about gender.
“Let’s get this over with,” Dr. Papanicolaou (Christopher Daftsios) teases: “Vagina!” In his tidy suit and thick mustache, Papanicolaou, the 50s inventor of the Pap smear, makes us squirm—repeating the word “vagina” as many times as possible.
Daftsios’ funny opening monologue vividly brings to life the enthusiastic Greek American scientist who aimed to revolutionize women’s reproductive health. Director Giovanna Sardelli gives Dickey’s play a lilt and a lightness, making its ideas lively and fun.
Dr. Pap’s new lab assistant Nan Day (Elissa Beth Stebbins) enters with a flare, in her pink and purple floral dress. Nan follows Dr. Pap’s overwhelming instructions, deflecting his personal questions with composure. Stebbins agilely jots down testing procedures and carefully moves sample slides from one chemical solution to another. Stebbins’ commitment to detail encourages us to respect Nan’s ambition. Nan yearns to be a ground-breaking researcher, standing out as a role model for young women today.
Scenic designer Nina Ball beautifully depicts Dr. Pap’s brightly lit lab at Cornell University, decorated with anatomical photos and intricate lab equipment. Then, Ball brilliantly flips the scene and invites us into Dr. Pap’s old-fashioned living room with a grand library and an antique piano. The contrast between the detailed work and home settings stunningly illustrates the compartmentalization of 50s American life, pointing at women’s continuing struggle to balance career and family.
Before dinner, Dr. Pap and Nan’s husband Ted Day (Jeffrey Brian Adams) engage in a debate about gender equality. Dr. Pap claims women are superior because they create life. But Ted insists that Pap’s ideas could hinder gender-equal treatment.
They forget entirely to bring in the female viewpoint, mirroring the Supreme Court’s ignorance of women’s needs when they overturned Roe v. Wade. They cannot be allowed to dictate the lives of women like Nan and Mache, or the rest of us.
Dr. Pap has ignored the feelings of his long-suppressed wife Mache (Lisa Ramirez) until she finally speaks up about her frustration. Mache feels “used up” and marginalized because menopause invalidates her Pap smear samples. Filled with remorse, Dr. Pap kneels gently beside Mache, leans his forehead against hers, and sings a nostalgic lullaby—a touching moment.
Daftsios and Ramirez intimately showcase the endearing side of a stern scientist and his loyal wife. The older couple burst into chuckles affectionately. My eyes are welled with tears as Dr. Pap learns to listen and empathize with Mache, at last.
When thinking about abortion rights and feminist issues, we need to listen to the women. “Nan” gives a stage to female role models, inspiring us to navigate politically charged waters, compassionately.
While young adults will particularly enjoy the nuanced and thought-provoking narratives in Dickey’s herstory, audiences of all ages will laugh and cry at this wholesome and heartening show.
“Nan and the Lower Body” by Jessica Dickey, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, by TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley, at Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto, California. Info: TheatreWorks.org – to August 7, 2022.
Cast: Christopher Daftsios, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Jeffrey Brain Adams, and Lisa Ramirez.
Banner photo: Lisa Ramirez (Mache) & Elissa Beth Stebbins (Nan). Photos by Alessandra Mello