During 82 performances of playwright Lisa Loomer’s Roe last year in Ashland, Oregon, the actors leaned back. The play, telling the story of the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion, was a low-stakes affair. And almost celebratory, as the cast anticipated a tour leading all the way to Washington, D.C. — culminating with a performance for the United States’ first female president.
“But then the election happened, and the show was vital, like a battle cry” explained Sara Bruner, the actress who plays Norma McCorvey, the 23-year-old lesbian “Jane Roe” plaintiff at the center of the play. Now, she says, Roe has “so much heat behind it.”
Bruner says Trump’s first 100 days in the Oval Office, an open seat on the Supreme Court, and McCorvey’s death on February 18 raised the stakes. “It’s become an act of love, to stand up for McCorvey, to present her not just as her obituary, but as someone full of laughter and love,” she explained. “Not losing her smart-assery is important. I’ve spent two years getting to know her. I have to do everything to serve her generously, openly.”
Center stage in the timely and topical play are McCorvey and Sarah Weddington (played by Sarah Jane Agnew), the then-26-year-old lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court (not once, but twice, one of many lesser-known facts Roe reveals).
Other players include Flip Benham (Jim Abele), the evangelic minister and leader of Operation Rescue, who years later caused McCorvey to pivot from abortion-clinic worker to Roman Catholic pro-life believer; and Connie Gonzalez (Catherine Castellanos), McCorvey’s decades-long lover who loved her without cause or potential cash-in.
There’s also Linda Coffee (Susan Lynskey), Weddington’s lawyer side kick; McCorvey’s rancorous, alcoholic mother; various feminist girlfriends and Operation Rescue workers; Melissa, the daughter McCorvey lost to her mother’s care during her drug-filled, hazy young adult life; and a flank of Supreme Court justices, with Justice Harry A. Blackmun featured for his role in writing the historic 7-2 ruling.
Astutely directed by Bill Rauch, Roe could’ve devolved into a hate-on-each-other, shouting match. Instead, what emerges is history saturated with humanity.
A laughter-filled first act allows audiences to embrace, and find sympathy in equal measure, the tightly coiffed Weddington and also McCorvey.
Not every scene connects seamlessly to the next, however, and an intermission creates an awkward canyon between the first act and the multilayered, gut-punching second half. But by frequently breaking the fourth wall, Loomer reinforces Roe’s message.
In fact, the play’s focus isn’t the chemistry between the performers as much as it is the conversation with the audience. Repeatedly thrust outward are questions of where to search for truth, who to trust, how to talk to people on opposite sides of a debate, and the role of poverty and education in the abortion issue. Admirably, Roe leaves viewers to decide for themselves. Remarkably, it doesn’t feel like a cop out.
Loomer says striking that balance is imperative, so as to avoid polemics. She described a scene in the script where McCorvey encounters a woman with Operation Rescue, a pro-life group. McCorvey spits in her face, and the audience revels in it. “But as the play goes on, they have an opportunity to know that woman, and I think the fury they have earlier is by then loosened. They wouldn’t enjoy spitting on her by the end,” Loomer said.
Bruner says she’s noticed that teen audiences are quieter than older attendees at performances. “With adults, you can hear and feel the historical recognition. Youth aren’t as riled up as our average audiences, or as vocally responsive to political parts of the play,” she said.
People have told her that a theatrical presentation of the abortion debate fills in the missing facts, while also making the subject easier to digest. “The play presents a challenge: to look at your belief system without triggering a knee-jerk reaction. It softens people.”
If Roe returns to the nation’s capital, the cast will likely lean forward and turn the heat up. After all, the folks in D.C. who view it might emerge a little less knee-jerk — and a lot more compassionate. l
Roe is scheduled to run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through April 2. Learn more at BerkeleyRep.org.