A Right to Choose or to be Imposed Upon?
The opening set in Lisa Loomer’s “Roe” is a run of stairs the full width of the stage, leading to a bare platform with a row of chairs at the back of the stage. This spare representation of courthouse steps and the seats of justice is a fitting opening to a brilliant play about one of the momentous decisions of our time – the Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy.
The story is that of two women. First is the 21 year old white trash Norma McCorvey, pregnant with her third child. She would be the plaintiff, Jane Roe, who years after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 would reveal her identity and go from working class anonymity to become a fractious and controversial figure in the anti-abortion movement. Second is Sarah Weddington, a 26 year old preppy feminist and recent graduate of the University of Texas law school.
The story is told episodically, with balance granted to both sides of the emotional issue and with an unexpected amount of cogent humor that provides relief from the tension of the subject without undermining its import. Sara Bruner shines as the unpredictable, overwrought, self-indulgent McCorvey. She looks the part and delivers homey Texas metaphors with the ease of a gunslinger drawin’ a six-shooter from a holster. Sara Jane Agnew is her equal as the restrained, measured Weddington – always proper, always precise. The other major parts are also strongly portrayed. Catherine Castellanos as Connie Gonzalez, who would become Norma’s longtime life partner, is superbly supportive and stoic, while Jeffrey King is appropriately smarmy and unctuous as anti-abortion activist Flip Benham.
Apart from the overall historical arc of the case, an interesting side plot is the conflict in the stories as presented by McCorvey and Weddington in their later books. To McCorvey, Roe v. Wade was about her personally, and she felt that facts that she gave and later retracted were relevant to the discussion. However, evidence abounds that her honesty was chronically suspect. For Weddington, McCorvey was merely a convenient pawn whose name could be slotted into the suit. The case that she argued was for all women, without regard to cause or condition of pregnancy, based primarily on the constitutional right to privacy granted by the 9th Amendment.
Director Bill Rauch hits all the right notes in presenting this significant and entertaining play. Realistic back projections give an almost 3-D feel to venues. Props, blocking, and stage movement render a dynamic feel. And the sound of the Supreme Court justices’ recorded voices during staged proceedings adds authenticity.
“Roe” plays at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland, OR, through October 29. OSF is a premier theater company, founded in 1935. Operating three theaters totaling over 2,100 seats, overall attendance in 2015 exceeded 390,000, representing 87% of capacity. Among its awards, OSF has received the coveted Tony in 1983 for outstanding achievement in regional theater and in 2014 for best play for its commission “All the Way.”