Norma McCorvey is a fascinating and complicated figure. As a young woman living in Texas, she became the “Roe” behind that landmark U.S. Supreme Court case when she filed a lawsuit seeking a legal abortion. In later years as a born-again Christian, she joined the pro-life movement and campaigned against abortion. Lisa Loomer’s play, a co-production of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, arrives at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage at a critical time. Incoming President Donald Trump has promised to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, a possible first strike to overturning Roe v. Wade.
Loomer is comfortable tackling controversial topics. She co-wrote the screenplay for Girl Interrupted, which starred Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie as women in a psychiatric facility. Her play, The Waiting Room, brought together three women from different time periods who meet in a doctor’s office, each suffering from undergoing cosmetic procedures – foot binding, corsetry, and breast implants – to conform to society’s idea of beauty. In an interview with the New York Times, she said that she initially resisted the idea of writing a play about Roe v. Wade, feeling that a court case “sounds kind of dry.” But after doing research, she changed her mind.
Sarah Jane Agnew, Susan Lynskey, Amy Newman, and Pamela Dunlap
The play focuses on the two central figures in the lawsuit, McCorvey and Sarah Weddington, the 26 year-old attorney who argues the case all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s 1969 and McCorvey, who has already given birth to two children, one being raised by her mother, the other, placed for adoption, finds herself pregnant for the third time. Weddington and her law partner, Linda Coffee, have been looking to file a lawsuit against the state of Texas on behalf of a pregnant woman seeking a legal abortion. After an initial meeting in a Dallas pizza parlor, the two lawyers find their plaintiff. Because McCorvey doesn’t want her real name used in the lawsuit, she becomes not Jane Doe but Jane Roe. The lawsuit is filed against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade.
McCorvey and Weddington are polar opposites. With her wild hair and worn hippie clothing, McCorvey, played convincingly by Sara Bruner, shows the effects of a hardscrabble life. Raised by her alcoholic mother, McCorvey abuses alcohol herself and has several run ins with the law. After leaving her abusive husband, she comes out as a lesbian with a lover, Connie (Catherine Castellanos). Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) is an ambitious lawyer in a field dominated by men. With her carefully coifed blond hair and conservative yet feminine suits, she’s able to charm McCorvey one minute and argue forcefully in court the next. Both Bruner and Agnew break the fourth wall, frequently talking directly to the audience about what is transpiring as the case wends it way through the courts.
Except for Bruner and Agnew, these versatile cast members move in and out of many different roles, never missing a beat. Particularly impressive is Susan Lynsky who plays Linda Coffee as the uptight assistant to the more polished Weddington, trransforms into a zealous supporter of the abortion movement, then shows up as a timid pregnant woman. Jim Abele, who plays Weddington’s strait-laced husband, Ron, morphs into the Bible-thumping Flip Benham, founder of a pro-life movement. He not only breaks the fourth wall, but addresses the audience like we’re part of his loyal congregation.
Sara Bruner and Jim Abele, in front, with Zoe Bishop and Amy Newman, in rear
After the Supreme Court ruling (Richard Elmore as Justice Harry Blackmun in a black robe reads some of the language from the decision to great effect), McCorvey works in a clinic, helping other women through the process. This is where her commitment to abortion begins to waver. Loomer skillfully shows McCorvey’s change of heart as a gradual process. She’s horrified when a woman who is six-months along comes in to terminate the pregnancy. Another woman who comes to the clinic for what will be her third abortion, receives an outburst from McCorvey that the procedure shouldn’t be treated as birth control. But it’s the influence of Flip, his wife (Amy Newman), and daughter (Zoe Bishop), that has the greatest impact on McCorvey’s attitude towards abortion. When McCorvey crosses to the other side, she’s a zealous pro-lifer.
While Roe v. Wade still stands, Roxanne (Kenya Alexander), a young black woman unable to afford an abortion, delivers a caution to those who believe abortion is available to all women. Final words are delivered by Agnew as Weddington, stating that the woman running for president, a supporter of abortion rights, won the popular vote but lost the election.
Despite that pro-abortion ending, the play provides enough ammunition for both sides of the debate. As Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith stated in the program notes: “If the ideas in this play inspire you to spark conversations with your loved ones, contact your representatives and become active in your community, theater has done its job.”
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Top photo: Sara Bruner and Sarah Jane Agnew
Written by Lisa Loomer
Directed by Bill Rauch
Through February 19, 2017
1101 Sixth Street SW