The opening night of Lisa Loomer’s Roe was the evening of January 18—a mere two days before the inauguration of a President who now unifies the federal government under a party that places its hostility to abortion rights front and center. When combined with the Republican dominance in state governments across the country, the threat to the landmark 1972 Supreme Court case that granted a woman’s constitutional right to abortion has likely never been more severe.
This was not lost among a decidedly pro-choice audience that had no hesitation about applauding lines and moments that catered to our values, nor was it lost among the cast and crew who spoke at the reception immediately following. But those who come to the play anticipating a full-throated ideological defense of the ruling may not get what they expect. They will get a taut, beautifully acted, emotionally enthralling production that is part history textbook, part personal drama, and even a little bit of advocacy training. That also creates Roe’s only drawback; in some spots, it feels like it’s still trying to find an identity.
At the outset, the foundation of the play is the personal and ideological disagreements between the original “Jane Roe,” Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew), the young attorney who successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court. Even before McCorvey became a born-again Christian campaigning against the very rights that still bear her pseudonym, she felt betrayed by what she perceived as Weddington’s lack of interest in her as anything more than an invisible plaintiff.
This personal drama is elegantly told, with creative staging to illustrate both the parallels and increasing divergences between a young lawyer whom the case propelled to a solid career, and an ill-starred, abused gay woman whose life never seemed to quite gain an anchor. It’s all the more gripping because of the vivid mise en scène of a comparatively misogynistic and fiercely homophobic Texas in the 1970s, and the ways in which facing and defying the cultural milieu both affected their story and doomed and prospect of a partnership beyond the case.
Perhaps surprisingly, Roe is at its most dynamic when it’s at its most didactic: using excerpts from McCorvey’s and Weddington’s books to illustrate key differences not just in perspective, but basic facts; or using well-timed fourth wall breaks to explain the fates of characters we’ve come to care about, but who are at the very most footnotes in a textbook. I’m a political junkie, so perhaps my experience is not representative—but I got chills when the production used actual audio from the oral arguments during the scene about presenting the case.
Unfortunately, the second act loses this track somewhat. It lingers on the slow, inexorable influence and conversion of McCorvey by activists from the anti-abortion activist group Operation Rescue, which moved next door to the clinic where McCorvey works. This would be a worthwhile play in its own right; but in focusing on it exclusively, we lose the fractious tension between our two leads that had been the raison d’être of the play up to that point.
This is made up for some by the inexorable decay of the relationship between McCorvey and her partner Connie (Catherine Castellanos), who is probably the most authentic and altruistic character in the entire play. More confusingly, McCorvey’s conversion segues abruptly into a townhall featuring both protagonists and their supporters talking past each other, as well as a mixed-race teenager (Kenya Alexander) telling a story that seems to encounter every single state-based anti-abortion restriction passed in the last few decades. While this seems to have been an attempt to document the futility of the current conversation about abortion, it also had the effect of seeming to back away from a consistent ideological position that the play had seemed to take over the preceding few hours.
But despite what I perceive as issues with plot development, giving the play and the performance anything less than five stars would be inappropriate. Roe is groundbreaking, educational, and a stark reminder of the world we risk going back to if our current federal government gets its wish and eliminates the nationwide right to choice.
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closes February 19, 2017
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So much for partisanship and ideology. From an execution perspective, the performances and the stagecraft are nothing short of masterful. Agnew and Bruner are both exquisite as the leads. During the first act especially, it’s easy to forget that it’s a live play and not a documentary featuring the characters themselves. But there aren’t enough good things to say about the performance of Catherine Castellanos and her empathetic conveyance of the constancy and heartbreak that befalls Connie Gonzales as she does everything she can to support McCorvey even as she knows she’s being left behind. The costuming, wardrobe and makeup also deserve special plaudits for making the forty-year timeline of the play flow smoothly and convincing.
If you enjoy great theater, you should definitely see Roe whether you know a lot about abortion rights, or not much at all. You’ll get an outstanding production. You’ll come away knowing much more about the history of one of most consequential Supreme Court decisions in history. And you’ll come away with a better understanding of exactly what the stakes are over the next few years.
Roe by Lisa Loomer . Directed by Bill Rauch . Featuring Jim Abele, Sarah Jane Agnew, Kenya Alexander, Mark Bedard, Zoe Bishop, Sara Bruner, Catherine Castellanos, Gina Daniels, Pamela Dunlap, Richard Elmore, Susan Lynskey, and Amy Newman . Set Design: Rachel Hauck . Costume Design: Raquel Barreto . Costumer Design: Raquel Barreto . Lighting Design: Jane Cox . Original Composition and Sound Design: Paul James Prendergast . Projection Design: Wendall K. Harrington . Voice and Text Director: Rebecca Clark Carey . Dramaturg: Tom Bryant . Stage Manager: Jeremy Eisen . Assistant Stage Manager: Marne Anderson . A Co-Production with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Arena Stage . Reviewed by Dante Atkins.