Stage & Dance

What’s so funny about stem cell technology? Comedy tackles a serious topic

Darius Fatemi plays Christopher and Bailey Preston plays Becca in “Timeless: A Scientific Comedy.”
Darius Fatemi plays Christopher and Bailey Preston plays Becca in “Timeless: A Scientific Comedy.”

Award-winning playwright Raegan Payne’s career began in her grandmother’s basement.

The Louisville native, who won this year’s Kentucky Women Writers Conference Prize for Women Playwrights, spent many summers at her grandparents’ house in Murray, writing stories for her cousins to act out in the old stone basement.

“There amongst the canned food, we would stage performances and play in my grandparents’ old clothes and use their old furniture as set pieces,” says Payne, who is now based in Los Angeles.

Internationally renowned playwright Martyna Majok selected Payne’s dark sci-fi comedy, “Timeless: A Scientific Comedy,” from among 180 submissions from 31 states, Canada and New Zealand to win the prize, which comes with a cash award and a full production of the winning play, independently produced and directed by Eric Seale in collaboration with KWWC and UK’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The play, which opens Thursday at the Farrish Theater, is about a team of scientists who discover the fountain of youth via stem cell technology and grapple with the moral and ethical implications of their discovery.

Payne, whose plays are regularly produced in the United States and abroad, is the first prize-winner with Kentucky roots. That fact wasn’t known until the blind-judging process was over.

“Only after digging deeper into the Corona del Mar resident’s biography did I learn that Raegan Payne was born in Murray and raised in Louisville,” says Julie Kuzneski Wrinn, director of Women Writers Conference. “That was a very happy surprise, knowing that we were going to get to celebrate the work of a Kentuckian. I’ve come to realize that Kentucky natives living elsewhere see our contest and make a point of entering in allegiance to their roots.”

Early in Payne’s Kentucky childhood, her father attended medical school at the University of Louisville and became a doctor, inspiring in hera love and a talent for science. She aspired to be a doctor.

“I came to be pretty good at certain sciences like biology, which was probably just from hearing this vocabulary around my house,” she says. “I was going to be a doctor, a large exotic-animal vet. I wanted to work in genetics and specifically in keeping animals that are going extinct alive.”

As a pre-med major in college, Payne was swayed to change course after taking theater courses and discovering that her talent for telling stories had not stayed in her grandmother’s basement. It didn’t hurt that her science classes included parasitology.

“I hit parasitology in school and thought, I can’t deal with worms anymore,” she says. “I had at the same time started to write for theater classes, and people were actually kind of taken with what I was writing.”

Payne has kept her love of science alive in her playwriting. She eventually began writing “Timeless” with the Sloan Award — a prize for plays about science — in mind.

“I’ve always been fascinated by stem cell technology, but once I dug into stem cell tech, the “what if” was more interesting to me than the current reality. You can see where the science is going and the questions that will arise, so I decided it should be a sci-fi play.”

The play addresses weighty issues including the nature and value of time itself to ethical implications of scientific discoveries, and the role of women in science, but it’s also a comedy.

“The play is about four scientists at different points in their careers who have discovered the key to agelessness in stem cell technology,” Payne says. “Unfortunately, the oldest member of the group is there to destroy the discovery before it’s viable. In a way, this is a workplace comedy. When you are stuck with four quirky people day in day out, things are going to get weird.”

What Wrinn, the women writers conference director, appreciates about “Timeless” is its speculative stance. “It asks, if this one thing were different, how would everything else change? It also raises questions about medical ethics: If we’re trying to prolong life with stem cell technologies, what are the consequences of endlessly postponing death?

“I also love how the play exposes audiences to life in the laboratory,” says Wrinn. “We hear a lot about the desirability of STEM careers, and so here is a workplace comedy like ‘The Office’ but set in a laboratory. And that laboratory includes scientists who are women.”

Payne will answer audience questions in a talk-back scheduled after the 2 p.m. matinee performance Nov. 4.

“I love that the play is being produced in Kentucky first and it’s a great honor to win an award from the place I was born,” she says.

If you go

‘Timeless: A Scientific Comedy’

What: World premiere production of Raegan Payne’s play for the 2017 Women Writer’s Conference

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2, 3; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4

Where: Farrish Theatre, Lexington Public Library, 141 E. Main St.

Tickets: $15 general admission, $10 students, $8 for students 15 minutes before curtain