"Roe" knows it will be an emotional experience as it tries to present both sides of the abortion issue

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Liz Lauren.

There are many ways in which to review Lisa Loomer’s Roe, now playing at the Goodman Theatre. One could react to it according to its socio-political connotations; it is, after all, dealing with one of the most divisive issues of our time. Or one might respond to its ability to incite emotions in its audience; I have rarely if ever been in a theatre where such a high percentage of the attendees were moved to respond orally or visibly restrain themselves from doing so. Or one could focus exclusively, as a good journalist is supposed to, on the writing, performance, and staging of the play itself, divorcing the review from all outside or internal interference. I know which one I ought to do, but I may not be able to help it: Roe made me so angry that I sit here a day later and I’m still upset.

I assume this is the kind of reaction that Loomer and director Vanessa Stalling wanted from the play’s audiences; after all, one does not write or produce a piece that focuses on the hot button issue of our time without being keenly aware of its emotional potential. And I strongly suspect that people on both sides of the cultural divide are likely to find their passions inflamed as they watch it because Loomer’s play makes every effort to present both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion sides as equally understandable when the vast majority of the country feels that one or the other of them is simply wrong.

No matter where you stand on this issue, though, if what you seek in a play is something provocative and well-acted with compelling and original staging, Roe is a play you simply must see. From its pre-show, set in Collette Pollard’s lovely recreation of the US Supreme Court and featuring projections of some of the major abortion-related headlines of the past year or so, it demands your engagement and aggressively grabs at your affective responses, setting you up for a powerful roller coaster of an evening. Some scenes will feel perfectly reasonable, some will make you laugh out loud, while still others will make you want to throw something at the stage, and that is all the evidence you need that this play is doing its job.

All of this is, of course, essentially the result of two women’s lives, and Roe is really their story. Well, their stories. Both the actual Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey (Kate Middleton) and the young Texas lawyer who argued her case, Sarah Weddington (Christina Hall) wrote books about the case, its origins, and its impacts. And these books contradicted each other in highly significant ways, partly due to the fact that McCovey, in her later years, became a born-again Christian and repudiated Roe in its entirety. All of this is shown onstage, as Loomer’s clever writing allows us to see both women behind the scenes as well as in public, and features (mostly fictional) face to face confrontations between them as they re-examine the case and its impact.

Loomer does show us snippets of the case itself, with actual recordings of the Justices asking questions of the lawyers (Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design is excellent even if the recordings themselves are often a bit mushy), but that is not Roe’s primary focus, though Pollard’s set as well as our own emotions keeps it always firmly in our minds, as the decision has dwarfed both of the women who were its catalysts. Still, it is these women and their individual stories that make this fascinating piece work. Middleton has, perhaps, the more difficult job: while Hall’s character grows from a neophyte lawyer just three years out of law school who is tasked with arguing this earth-shattering case before the Supreme Court to a seasoned feminist who decries its fading mandate, Middleton has to show the evolution of McCovey from (it may be argued) a tool of the left to a tool of the right as she moved from the center of Weddington’s case to fall under the spell of Project Rescue leader Flip Benham (Ryan Kittley) and his evangelical flock. Her metamorphosis is slow but complete, and we witness the ways in which this uncertain, impoverished, self-centered lesbian with dubious morals and no access to power was influenced by those working for a cause. 

It would have been easy for Loomer to make Kitley’s character the unmitigated villain of this piece, as he at first appears to be, but she is far more even-handed than that. In intimate conversations with McCovey, Benham comes across as a man who, yes, covets the coup of bringing Jane Roe to his side, but who also sincerely feels he is saving her soul. The moral center of the play, though, is McCovey’s long-term lover Connie (Stephanie Diaz), a Mexican woman with strong ties to both Catholicism and the mysticism of the Aztecs. Connie remains non-judgmental and true to herself through Norma’s major belief swings, and only becomes upset when Benham’s evangelism begins to make her lover believe that her own homosexuality is somehow wrong, leading her to pull away from their relationship. 

Stalling does a remarkable job of holding all of these various pieces together while telling a story that strives to take no sides in an issue in which there is no middle ground. Her compartmentalized staging, facilitated by Pollard’s realistic roll-ins and Keith Parham’s lighting, allows us to see this case as both sides see it. Her transitions from scene to scene, through time periods (kudos to Jessica Pabst’s costumes), and from history to invention are seamless. Her decision to use actual tech people onstage at times to facilitate certain changes adds to the recognition that this is not, after all, undisputed truth but lives in the mind of the playwright who created it and those who witness it. 

Roe is very likely to make you angry, but good theatre is supposed to bring out strong emotions as it holds a mirror up to reality. It’s possible that people on either side of the political divide will see it as partisan, but what Loomer really has done here is to create an inventive, challenging play that forces us to see this landmark decision in new ways. As we move inexorably through an era in which the freedom it defined will likely be destroyed or at least severely limited, it’s important for all of us to know what, exactly, the stakes are. 

Roe is now playing at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, until Feb 23. The show runs approximately two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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