Although Roe v. Wade is considered one of the Supreme Court’s most landmark cases, and there’s probably been as much written and debated about the case as any other in history, aside from their names, many aren’t that familiar with the two women who changed history.
Norma McCorvey was a down-on-her luck, hard-living lesbian in her early 20s who was seeking to end her third pregnancy when she was recruited to be plaintiff “Jane Roe” to challenge Texas’s abortion ban. Sarah Waddington was the 26-year-old strait-laced, ambitious lawyer who argued the famous 1973 case.
Playwright Lisa Loomer was tasked with writing a play exploring these two women, and the result, Roe, became a buzz-worthy hit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last fall. The show, directed by Bill Rauch, is now onstage at Arena Stage with its original cast.
Sara Bruner plays Norma McCorvey. The actress was attracted to the part because of the history of it all.
“Like a lot of people, I had a semi-general notion of Roe v. Wade, but this play gets into specifics that I found really interesting,” Bruner says. “The first time I sat down to read it, I was Googling things the whole time, because I didn’t know if that’s really what happened.”
Bruner notes that the play up-ended a little bit of her own belief system. “I just sort of took for granted how I felt about the [abortion] issue; I felt challenged about the play in ways that excited me and made me ask a lot of questions,” she says. “At the center of it all is this notion of contradiction. The play is so much about humanizing the notion of contradiction.”
The play was first done as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Black Swan Lab, which does readings of new works, and Bruner was part of that initial reading. Unlike other Black Swan entries, where normally only a handful of people show up to listen, more than 60 people were there, she said.
“I remember thinking there’s something really special about this play because everyone has shown up and is paying attention to it,” she says. “It was clear this play already had legs and I was lucky that I got to know it earlier than most people.”
Having spent most of her career doing classical theater, this was the first time that Bruner had played a living character, and the first thing she did to prepare for the role was read McCorvey’s two books.
“The first book tells it from one perspective and the second is in her own words, after she was converted and had a different version, so that was the best source material I could ask for,” she says. “Then we have the luxury of using YouTube and the very famous Vanity Fair interview, so I was able to look at a lot of direct source materials.”
Rather than do an impersonation, Bruner worked to figure out what was essential about McCorvey and worked with Loomer to really delve into who she was.
“She is so fantastically complicated and the most important thing for me has always been to present her in a compassionate way because so many people have written her off,” she says. “It’s important to me that she’s not just seen as crazy, but that’s she’s honestly and whole-heartedly pursuing these things from moment to moment, even though she contradicts herself.”
In the three months since the play ended in Oregon, Bruner has had the play on her mind as the country has undergone some big changes. With the show coming to D.C. now, she feels Roe could be something completely different.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen when we stand up and do this play again, but I feel it will seem quite different because politically things feel so different, and I feel so different knowing I am opening this play and Trump will be inaugurated soon after,” she says. “It absolutely will affect the play, maybe in the tiniest way, but it feels drastic to me right now and I don’t know if it will have extra fire, but it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Minneapolis actress Sarah Jane Agnew, who plays attorney Sarah Waddington, agrees with her assessment.
“We imagined we would bringing this play to D.C., and it would be perhaps a more celebratory thing but now it just has a different tone to it,” she says. “There are lines in the play where we talk about what it was like under Reagan and how if any seats open up, they will not go to a judge who is pro-choice, and it rings so true right now as our President-Elect has said the same thing.”
Agnew was excited about the script upon first read, because it wasn’t a political piece that felt didactic or a diatribe; it was smart and funny, and happened to be about abortion and presented both sides of the argument in a respectful and intelligent way.
“I felt I had never seen anything like that before. There was so much story here and I could see what attracted Lisa to it,” she says. “I did not know much about Norma’s story or that she went far right, and I also didn’t know that Sarah Waddington was only 26 and it was her first contested case.”
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During her research, Agnew learned even more and saw the depth of how the case has been attacked and the strategies and the undermining of it all, and felt it was such a powerful play. That sentiment was shared by many she talked to who saw Roe in Oregon.
“We found the older generation walked away with a lot of what they went through and then the younger generation was blown away by what happened,” Agnew says. “I feel people can walk away and have some compassion for the other side after spending two hours in a room with an opinion that is not theirs. It’s true and respectful and the piece isn’t set up to sway anybody but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I hoped people would pull out their checkbooks and write checks to Planned Parenthood.”