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Review: ‘Roe’ at Arena Stage

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The title of Lisa Loomer’s riveting play Roe refers to both the pivotal Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade and the person known as Jane Roe who was the plaintiff in it. Loomer dramatizes both stories—why and how the case came to be and who the person was and what happened to her. The play now running at Arena’s Kreeger Theater would have been electrifying had the prochoice presidential candidate won. Now with the outcome that was and will be, Roe plays like a thunderbolt to a body politic already in shock.

(L to R) Sara Bruner (Norma McCorvey), Sarah Jane Agnew (Sarah Weddington), and Susan Lynskey (Linda Coffee). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

“History ain’t over yet,” says Jay Floyd (Jim Abele), the lawyer who represented the losing side when Roe v. Wade was first argued before the Supreme Court. Actually he nearly sneers this, to Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) after her argument before the bench on behalf of Jane Roe prevailed. The words hang in the air at Arena with  foreboding.

Loomer’s storytelling is not all gloom and doom, however; it’s highly theatrical, often delightfully comedic, an artful blend of docudrama, infotainment, and comic strip. Its cheeky main character, Norma McCorvey, the real Jane Doe, has a hilarious gift for gab (“It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a pool table,” she says at one point. And “I’m so poor I can’t afford to pay attention”). As written by Loomer and performed with scrappy joie de vivre by Sara Bruner, Norma commands attention as one of the most fascinating female characters on the contemporary stage. And though the life-and-liberty stakes of the drama are dead serious, and its portent now could not be more dire, Director Bill Rauch puts the cast of twelve through paces that have plenty of pricelessly funny payoffs.

Rauch, who is Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director, commissioned Loomer to write a work about the Roe case as one of 37 plays “sprung from moments of change in United States history” for OSF’s ambitious American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. The play premiered at OSF as a coproduction with Arena Stage, which recently announced Power Plays, a ten-year new-play initiative focusing on DC’s “unique theatrical voice on politics and power.” Thus the role of Roe as both legal case and playscript has significance not only now but here—a short march away from the Supreme Court.

Loomer pits the two historical figures Sarah Weddington and Norma McCorvey against each other, and in Loomer’s construction, the tensions between them have nearly as much drama as the contested legal questions. McCorvey  was a poor, pregnant 22-year-old seeking an abortion when she was recruited by Weddington, then a 24-year-old recent law school grad, to be the plaintiff in a challenge to a Texas anti-abortion law. Their personalities and backgrounds differ sharply. Neither as written is particularly likeable (we’re not meant to cozy up to them, this isn’t a sentimental play). But Sarah and Norma each become so vivid in performance by Agnew and Bruner that they seem to have stepped on stage from life.

Actually, in a clever scripting move, Loomer has them step on stage from the pages of their own autobiographies. In recurring direct address to the audience, Sarah and Norma bicker over their contradictory and inconsistent versions of events. Weddington’s A Question of Choice (1992) and McCorvey’s I Am Roe (1994) disagree on significant points, and the script makes dramatic use of the disparities. The script also spots discrepancies between I Am Roe and McCorvey’s subsequent book, Won by Love (1998), written after renunciation of her role in Roe v. Wade.

“It’s really hard to talk objectively about history, about the ‘truth,’” complains Linda Coffee (Susan Lynsky), a colleague of Weddington’s. “Which is why I never wrote a book.”

When the play begins we see Sarah in a women’s consciousness-raising group whose members, having just read Our Bodies, Our Selves, are apprehensively lying on pillows and fumblingly following its instructions for inspecting their cervixes. Sarah reads them what they need: “a flashlight, a lubricant such as Crisco, a handmirror, and a speculum.” It’s a shamelessly funny scene.

We meet Norma in a  lesbian bar as a good-time gal, drinking, dancing, and making out. The tension between this delightful dyke and the ladylike lawyer gets the play off to a snappy start. And in two dozen tight scenes, the play goes from 1969 to now.

In an artful gimmick, the ensemble at times wear robes to represent the Supreme Court, then take them off to reveal in costume the various characters they play. And what a fascinating sweep of history gets depicted through this terrific cast’s many guises! In addition to the several fictional characters they play…

Gina Daniels appears as Aileen (McCorvey’s friend) and Florynce Kennedy (the famous activist lawyer and civil-rights advocate). Susan Lynskey appears as Linda Coffee (an attorney who with her colleague Weddington brought the 1972 case that challenged the Texas anti-abortion law) and Eleanor  Smeal (president of the National Organization for Women). Amy Newman appears as Gloria Allred (the influential women’s-rights lawyer, who befriended Norma). (With Allred now in the news, the character’s entrance on opening night brought a round of applause.) Pamela Dunlap appears as Mary (McCorvey’s alcoholic and emotionally abusive mother) and Kate Michaelman (president of NARAL Pro-Choice America). Catherine Castellanos appears as Connie Gonzales (McCorvey’s loyal long-time partner). Mark Bedard appears as Henry McCluskey (a Dallas adoption lawyer). Jim Abele appears as Ron Weddington (Sarah’s husband), Jay Floyd (who represented Dallas County DA Henry Wade and argued the anti-abortion case),  and Philip “Flip” Benham (an Evangelical Christian minister and leader of Operation Rescue). Richard Elmore appears as Supreme Court Justice Blackmun (who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision) and Henry Wade (the governor of Texas whose name is on Roe v. Wade). Zoe Bishop appears as Melissa (Norma’s first child, in the legal custody of Norma’s mother).

Set Designer Rachel Hauck constructs multilevel platforms that glide in and out, with steps that lead down to the orchestra (evoking the steps leading up to the Supreme Court building). This makes for a nice sense of shifting space, with scenes fluidly brought into focus by Lighting Designer Jane Cox.

We get a clear narrative sense of place—be it a pizza parlor, a dive bar, a swanky backyard, a modest home, a period disco, an abortion clinic, a book-filled law office, a stately courtroom—from photographs on the rear screen selected by Projection Designer Wendall K. Harrington. And between scenes and after, Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast uses pop music to lend a narrative of time through the decades. Most remarkably, Prendergast also allows us to hear the authentic voices of Justices Burger, Stewart, White, and Marshall during Weddington’s argument before the court. The “you are there” effect is both disquieting and amazing.

Costume Designer Raquel Barretto has made fine forthright choices for the male characters but some quirky ones for the female. Curiously, the women’s clothes are suggestive of the period but border on cartoony. Members of the cervix-seeking CR group, for instance, are dressed in such bad taste it could be satire. Even Sarah sometimes wears sendups of clueless dressing for success. Conceivably the intent was to align with the broad comedy in the play, which it definitely does. Still, so many caricature frocks in a pro-woman play takes some getting used to.

Wig Master Devon Ash, however, deserves a special hat tip. The actors’ doubling and tripling and the characters’ passage through time are communicated instantly through coif. At moments we get to see the actors take off one wig then don the next, even as we see busy stage hands briskly shift set pieces on and off. The aura of “you are there watching the workings of law” nicely encompasses a sense of “you are here watching the workings of theater.”

It will come as no news to those familiar with the fallout from Roe v. Wade that the woman at the center of the case in real life converted to Evangelical Christianity then Roman Catholicism and joined the anti-abortion movement. To its credit the play Roe makes that character arc completely comprehensible and emotionally compelling.  When Norma, for instance, learns from reading A Question of Choice that Weddington herself had an abortion and never told Norma, she is outraged: “If you wanted to help me get an abortion, why didn’t you tell me where you got yours?!” Norma yells, understandably feeling betrayed.

Norma comes to feel “used by the feminists and used by the press,” and the play pulls no punches about how that in fact was what happened and how it left her isolated, without support—and, importantly, needy for the embrace and acceptance of fervent believers. Eventually, though, McCorvey comes to feel used by the Evangelical Christian antiabortion movement as well. She was never cut out to be a poster person and the play contains the tragedy of what happened when she was made one.

Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey) and Jim Abele (as Flip Benham), with Zoe Bishop, and Amy Newman (background). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Loomer plays with time, in a way that is  illuminating and often startling, by having characters mention what would happen to them in the future or what their obituaries would say. The script is surprisingly balanced as well. There are various passages of histrionics—emotional appeals on both the “abortion is choice” and “abortion is murder” sides of the controversy. And there is acknowledgement of the biases and uncertainty in first-person history. The result is a kind of authorial omniscience that is both empathetic and impartial, and ever respectful of the conflicting passions and principles at play in this ongoing national drama.

To be sure, the play does stay faithful to the spirit of the Roe v. Wade decision in underscoring the principle that the right to choose (under current interpretation of the Constitution, at least) belongs solely to the pregnant woman—not the state, not the church, not anyone else. In a surprise of a scene that functions like a coda, a young pregnant woman named Roxanne (a wonderful Kenya Alexander) confronts Sarah and demands to know whether abortion is murder. Sarah waffles, citing the fact that a fetus has not been judicially defined as a person.

“Don’t give me the law,” says Roxanne; “give me the truth.”

“We can give you the choice,” Sarah answers measuredly, “but you have to choose.”

Roe will resolve no legal argument nor make no political dispute go away; a play cannot do that. But in Lisa Loomer’s transparent determination as playwright to empathize with all her characters, to be fair to all the players, this work exemplifies and models how to feel where one’s opponent is coming from even if one cannot in conscience condone where they have gone. That alone makes Roe necessary now more than ever.

Running Time: About two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Roe plays through February 19, 2017, at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase tickets online.

LINK:
Magic Time!: A Report on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival Reading of Lisa Loomer’s ‘Roe’ at The Kennedy Center by John Stoltenberg.

Trailer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production:

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One Response to Review: ‘Roe’ at Arena Stage

  1. Anna January 23, 2017 at 2:39 am #

    This show was abysmally bad. It was a 2 hour harangue, a polemic designed to get head nods and applause from righteously indignant liberals. And I can say that because I am a righteously indignant liberal. I’m the target audience. But this was neither entertainment nor education; this was propaganda. And not even especially compelling propaganda. The actors did an admirable job, but the play itself was terrible. If you’re easily swayed and want to come out feeling smug, I guess this is a play for you. If you’re smart or your view are at all nuanced or you just don’t appreciate being repeatedly hit over the head with the theatrical equivalent of a freshman year women’s studies textbook, go see something else.