Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision enshrining a woman’s right to an abortion anywhere in the United States, was 16 years old when it became the subject of a 100-minute made-for-TV movie. I’m unaware of any major attempt to dramatize the case in the 27 years between when Roe vs. Wade aired on NBC and the world premiere of Lisa Loomer’s play Roe at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last April. In that generation-long interval, the case has only grown more hotly contested, as you already knew, and the life of its plaintiff more complicated, as you maybe didn’t. And of course in the nine months between Roe’s premiere and its arrival in D.C. at Arena Stage with (mostly) the same cast, the world has changed.
I can’t pretend that the inauguration of the most openly misogynistic president in at least half a century doesn’t lend Loomer’s openly didactic wiki-play a resonance and an urgency it would not have if Hillary Clinton now occupied the White House. And I see no point in trying to disentangle my estimation of Roe’s aesthetic worth from the occasion of when I saw it: On the 44th anniversary of the decision. One day after I’d marched with millions around the globe (and hundreds of thousands here in D.C.) in support of women; and one day before President Donald Trump would sign an executive order reinstating President Ronald Reagan’s gag rule banning Federal funding to international healthcare groups that mention abortion to patients in any context for any reason.
Given the oppressive weight of the present, I’m considerably more susceptible to a history-play that speaks its own footnotes—at the expense of jokes, lifelike dialogue, a fourth wall, or many of the other disbelief-suspending tools dramatists traditionally employ—than I would be were Roe v. Wade now not in grave danger of being overturned. So sue me.
My response to Loomer’s term-paper-as-stage-show, efficiently staged by Bill Rauch and enlivened by a dozen-member cast with all but the principals playing multiple roles, is clearly informed by partisanship. But I don’t think the play is. It’s true to the complexities of the abortion debate by being true to the complexities of Norma McCorvey’s biography. (McCorvey is the woman represented under the pseudonym Jane Roe.) She was a victim of abuse from a young age, was disowned by her mother for being a lesbian, a drinker, and a drug user, and already had two children by age 22, when she sought to abort her third pregnancy. The legal wheels turned too slowly for that; her third baby, like her second, was adopted.
Over the course of the middle and late ’70s, McCorvey became increasingly convinced she’d been the mere pawn of Sarah Weddington, the Texas lawyer who was not yet 30 when she argued on behalf of “Jane Roe” before the high court. McCorvey outed herself as Jane Roe in 1980. Around the time Holly Hunter won an Emmy for playing her on TV (though the telefilm Roe vs. Wade renamed McCorvey “Ellen Russell” for some reason), McCorvey hooked up with feminist attorney Gloria Allred, who flew her to L.A. and began grooming her for a career as a reproductive rights advocate. She enjoyed her brief tour of the jet set (and the cocaine), but eventually she went home to Texas.
In the ’90s, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue opened an office next door to the Dallas reproductive health clinic where McCorvey was working. Flip Benham, the Evangelical minister in charge of the organization, befriended McCorvey, and their relationship eventually led her to a profound change of heart: She became an anti-abortion activist. In 1995 she allowed Benham to baptize her. In 1998, she became a Roman Catholic and declared herself no longer a lesbian, though she continued to live in the home of her partner of more than 20 years, Connie Gonzalez. She wouldn’t move out until 2005, after Gonzalez, 16 years her senior, suffered a stroke. In 2013, McCorvey’s 47-year-old daughter Melissa told Vanity Fair magazine, “Norma has never been able to do the right thing. Never.”
The pro-choice movement probably would’ve preferred a more compelling poster child. But one of the themes that emerges from Loomer’s messy but effective pageant is how dehumanizing it is to make anyone the poster child for anything. And it’s hard to imagine how any play that embraces all these contradictions could be any less hand-waving than Loomer’s is.
The audience I saw Roe with applauded during the ’70s-set courtroom scenes (featuring recorded audio of the justices’ questions) and ’90s-set TV talk show scenes when (usually) Sarah Jane Agnew (as Weddington) fiercely articulated something with which they agreed. Is that the same thing as being moved by Agnew’s performance? I’m not sure. I also heard a few scattered “Amens” when Jim Abele (as Benham) held a Bible over his head and declared that Jesus is the only answer. Abele’s performance has a dexterity that some of the others don’t, but he’s also given more to play.
Sara Bruner, in the role of McCorvey, seems somewhat timid in a show that’s all about her, but perhaps that’s intentional. With the exception of her faithful Connie (Catherine Castellanos, who carries the pain of her lover’s indifference), people were only ever interested in her as an abstraction. When Kenya Alexander makes a late-show appearance as a low-income young woman seeking an abortion, only to be stymied by the ever-expanding list of restrictions on the procedure, the show finally finds a current of emotion to match its scholarship.
I like the scholarship, though. Both Weddington and McCorvey waited until the ’90s to publish accounts of their experiences in the case. McCorvey published two. In 1994’s I Am Roe, she claimed she’d been used by Weddington and another lawyer, Linda Coffee (a wry Susan Lynskey), who were actively seeking a client on whose behalf they could challenge Texas’ anti-abortion law. She admitted she’d lied about being raped in 1969 in the hope it would increase her chances of being granted an abortion. In her second book, she went further, claiming that her lawyers, Wedding and Coffee, had told her to lie, which Weddington disputes. Loomer delights in having her characters announce these discrepancies in the public record, and this metatheatrical trick extends even to minor players, who sometimes quote from their own obituaries when introducing themselves.
It sounds a little bit wearying. In sunnier times, perhaps it would be. As things stand, I think it’s a good illustration of the gap that exists between the inner and public selves of even the most grounded people, never mind someone whose compass spun in as many directions as McCorvey’s.
Thanks to an unprecedented abdication of duty by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the 10 months since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia (who was himself the subject of a play at Arena Stage two years ago), our new president is in a position to fill a Supreme Court vacancy immediately. If Roe might’ve felt a little bit airless upon its birth last April, it sure doesn’t now. Loomer’s style is a bit professorial, aye. But you know what? I’m with her.
At Arena Stage to Feb. 19. 1101 6th St. SW. (202) 488-3300. $55-$110. arenastage.org.