Living history: ‘Roe’ in Ashland

Watching Lisa Loomer's play about politics and abortion in an era of shifting restrictions and loyalties

By SUZI STEFFEN

If you don’t go see Lisa Loomer’s new play Roe at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I predict that you’ll be seeing it soon elsewhere, perhaps many elsewheres.

That’s because the subject of Roe is topical (when will it not be?), and the play is mostly enjoyable as a piece of theater. It happens to have strong roles for several women, a rarity among plays old and new alike, along with a satisfyingly obvious source of conflict, embodied in the second act by a physical space shared by an abortion-providing women’s health clinic and an office of the anti-abortion direct action group Operation Rescue.

As I write this review, the Supreme Court of the United States has just ruled on Whole Woman’s Health et al. v. Hellerstadt (which does not trip off the tongue as does Roe v. Wade, of course), another case that got to the SCOTUS from Texas. Whole Woman concerns several Texas laws that attempted to curtail almost to nothing any possibility for health clinics to perform abortions for any women in that massive,  massively populated state.

A major Roe v. Wade anniversary puts Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) back in the public eye. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

A major Roe v. Wade anniversary puts Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) back in the public eye. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

A quick check of the Guttmacher Institute shows that all 50 states – Oregonians happen to live in the least restrictive state, but our state does allow individuals and private medical facilities to refuse to perform abortions – have policies and laws restricting abortion access in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons.

Roe tells that story, a little, but its main purpose is to turn into compelling theater the stories of the two main women behind the Roe v. Wade 1973 Supreme Court decision. The play, commissioned as part of the American Revolutions: United States History Cycle, mixes direct address, onstage quick changes and a rat-a-tat rush of scenes across the decades as Jane Roe and her lawyer meet, challenge each other and the law, change their clothes and sometimes change their minds about the issues at the heart of Roe v. Wade.

Brexit news dominates Facebook and Twitter feeds right now, along with headlines at every news outlet. Roe and Brexit both are excellent reminders of what long-term disinvestment in working-class people’s lives can do, especially when that lack of economic opportunity rubs up too closely against the unstudied power of an upper- or upper-middle-class existence: There’s resentment, a sense of betrayal, the probability of exploitation, the likelihood of rebellion.

All of that played a part in Jane Roe agreeing to become the test case for a Supreme Court ruling on abortion, at least according to the historical research that playwright Loomer has clearly done (this includes a sly investigation of first-person sources through arguments between characters, moments whose importance becomes clear late in Act II).

Loomer’s underlying emphasis on class, combined with two or three moments of addressing race and health care access (heads up, though: the latter deserve their own play), lies at the heart of Roe.

Some of the one-liners or other zingers from the historical record, including the words of Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the majority in Roe v. Wade, seem to serve for many in the audience as a political rally, perhaps hearkening back to a memory of an idealized golden SCOTUS time or, at other times, a reflection on issues we’re still tussling over, including gun control and LGBTQIA Pride post-Orlando. All of those issues get embodied, literally, by Jane Roe.

Norma McCorvey is the real name of the young, alcoholic, drug-addicted, fun-loving, damaged liar of a lesbian pregnant with someone’s baby in 1971, when (also young) lawyer Sarah Weddington decided to take her case on in order to sue for a woman’s right to terminate pregnancy in, you guessed it, Texas.

McCorvey is played by Sara Bruner,  who stands out as Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night this year and also has a massive role in this play. It’s a credit to the writing and the actor that McCorvey’s swings of opinion and seemingly artless – though possibly calculated – alterations in fortune and attitude appear seamless. McCorvey is the character who changes the most during the play, and Bruner makes her a heartbreaker: charming, addicted, quick to anger and just as quick to appreciate love or the limelight, whichever burns brighter.

Norma has her baby, gives the baby up for adoption, stays poor, and finds a partner (superlatives fail me in my applause for Catherine Castellanos, playing the most perfectly accurate butch lesbian I’ve seen on stage, including in Fun Home). Norma doesn’t even know how the case is progressing until she hears about it on TV.

Meanwhile, her lawyer builds a high-flying political career, full of speaking engagements and recognition around the name she makes arguing Roe against a Texas lawyer (beautifully and scuzzily played by Jeffrey King, who also does standout work as the Jesus-saved former drinker who becomes Operation Rescue’s Reverend Flip Benham) before the Supreme Court when she is still in her 20s. Weddington is played by Sarah Jane Agnew, last seen at OSF in 2009’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and she has a harder job in some ways than Bruner. Weddington remains steadfast in her support for women’s rights, and that’s never hard for her because she has power at every single juncture. She can argue policy on TV and speak to large groups, and the only time she’s ineffective is when a young woman of color asks her what she should do when she gets pregnant.

Operation Rescue member Ronda Mackey (Amy Newman, center) tries to convince a woman (Gina Daniels) not to have an abortion at the clinic where Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) works. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Operation Rescue member Ronda Mackey (Amy Newman, center) tries to convince a woman (Gina Daniels) not to have an abortion at the clinic where Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) works. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Both Bruner and Agnew must change costumes and hair many times, as must the other members of the ensemble – including a memorable Gina Daniels(whose turn as a professor invited to a consciousness raising group underscores some blind spots in the predominantly white second wave feminist movement) and a strong Susan Lynskey  and the fact that they’re doing much of that at the rear of the stage, with crew members assisting them, means that the audience feels once again the play-ness of the play, the absurdity that we’re in a room where we’re pretending to watch history.

Could this tongue-in-cheek investigation of the nature of what a “history” play does be a comment on All the Way and The Great Society, two other American Revolutions commissions also directed by Bill Rauch, whose structures are episodic but more self-serious as they cover swaths of time when our contemporary world was built?

But Roe is serious, too: Nine stools hover at the rear of scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s set before the play begins, as if Roe will be a staged reading, but they remain there, highlighted off and on throughout the play, serving occasionally in their key role as chairs for the nine justices of the Supreme Court.

When Weddington, in an up-to-date, brightly colored suit and blonde hair, enters the stage to discuss what’s happening with abortion rights in the present day, we get the message: The Supreme Court’s power over a woman’s body is unmitigated, and no matter which side you’re on, your side’s future success around this 43-year-old decision is fully dependent on who’s elected to the presidency just after this play closes. Weddington and perhaps McCorvey would tell you to vote this November; whether the result is a tragedy or a victory depends very much on where you stand.

*

Veteran cultural writer Suzi Steffen has been covering the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for ArtsWatch this season. More reports from her visits:

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