Coming hard on the heels of the historic Women’s March in DC, is Arena Stage’s presentation of Roe. In the scheme of things, playwright Lisa Loomer’s unflinching piece couldn’t be a more relevant, timely piece of political theatre. It speaks to a time when women and their families had no other choice than to undergo dangerous procedures to terminate their unwanted pregnancies. And despite the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling to give women the right to an abortion, threats to overturn its groundbreaking decision have never been more ominous nor the country more polarized in its views.
With its East Coast premiere, Director Bill Rauch draws on a stellar cast to present this co-partnership with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It is a powerful, no-holds-barred story of the woman who was chosen to represent “Roe” and the unusual story of her recruitment as defendant Roe and her subsequent U-turn to the other side of the argument.
It tells the real life story of 22-year-old Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner), as unlikely a candidate for women’s issues as could ever be imagined. A former carnival worker, McCorvey was raised in a reform school and works as a bartender at The Red Devil a sleazy, lesbian bar in Dallas Texas. She’s been raped by a white man, a black man and a Mexican, or that’s her story, finding herself pregnant and with no money for an abortion. Back then the only options were to fly off to Mexico or find a “doctor” who would perform one illegally, usually under the most squalid of conditions. Her other option being to self-abort. “You are going to hell on a scholarship,” her friend warns her at a time when hospitals had entire wards for botched abortions. Soon straight-out-of-law-school lawyer Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) and her legal adviser, Linda Coffee (Susan Lynsky who also plays Judy/First Pregnant Woman and Peggy), find Norma, agreeing to use her as a test case.
The play presents both sides of the argument – pro-life and pro-choice – exploring the issues while recalling the dangers inherent in illegal abortions. It guides us through the early days of the women’s rights movement and later when Sarah becomes the President of NARAL. The use of audio portions of the U. S. Supreme Court judges’ actual words and projections of televised broadcasts of the protests that preceded it, are particularly haunting. And though it’s educational in its laying out of the history of the trial, there is hardly a moment when it’s not also hilarious and uplifting.
Bruner is riveting in her transformation from a trash-talking, drug-dealing, alcoholic hippie to her role as receptionist in a women’s clinic to self-righteous author and born-again Christian after a fateful meeting with Flip Benham (Jim Abele who triples as Jay Floyd, opposing attorney on the initial case, and later Ron Weddington, Sarah’s husband). Flip appears in Act Two as the pro-life, bible-toting crusader and founder of Operation Rescue who uses every trick in the book to convert Norma to his cause.
Lesser known in the drama was Henry Wade (Richard Elmore), the Dallas County District Attorney, who first heard the case and Norma’s longtime lover, Connie, played notably by Catherine Castellanos.
Particularly effective is Set Designer Rachel Hauck’s use of large sections of moving stage requiring the actors to leap across platforms to highlight individual scenes while Lighting Designer Jane Cox capitalizes on the drama by focusing on its intensity.
Special nod to Kenya Alexander in her compelling performance as Roxanne who embodies the spirit of the modern day college student confronted with the choice of having a child or continuing her education.
Super timely and highly recommended.
Through February 9th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org