Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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
Roe Written by Lisa Loomer Directed by Bill Rauch Through February 19, 2017 Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW
Hi. How you doing? Hello, sweetheart. How are you? Uh, not too good. I know, baby. I have to come home. I have to come home. Baby, I know that. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stay strong. Are you saying your prayers? Yes, mom, but I want to come home. Baby, I promise you that we’re working on that, okay? Will you promise me that I’ll come home? Sweetheart… Will you try? Sweetheart, we’re trying everything we can. I promise you. There’s nothing in the world that I want more than my boy home with me.
It’s a familiar conversation: a homesick child calling his mom, begging to come home. Yet this boy is not away at camp or on a school field trip. He’s in prison, a juvenile tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
This is the beginning of Lost for Life, Josh Rofé’s heart wrenching film that takes viewers inside the lives of these young people and the lives of their parents as they attempt to adjust to a new normal, one that revolves around prison. We see the crimes these prisoners committed and learn about the victims and the victims’ families. While that opening phone call is painful to hear, that audio is juxtaposed with a visual as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the brutal slaying of a young teenage girl that landed this teenage boy and his friend in jail.
]“I did not make an advocacy piece by any means,” explained Rofé during a phone interview. “I hope that this film will spark a national conversation around the issue.” On June 24, 2012, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to mandate a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of homicide. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
The ruling does not eliminate life without parole for juveniles, but means that other factors should be considered before sentencing, including the young person’s background and circumstances as well as the nature of the crime.
According to the National Center for Youth Law, there are currently around 2,500 prisoners serving life without parole sentences for homicides committed when they were under 18 years of age. The U.S. Is the only country in the world where youths are allowed to die in prison.
“[That Supreme Court ruling] should have been front page news,” said Rofé. “It wasn’t because minutes after that ruling came down, the ruling [on Obamacare] came down. No one even remembers it unless they are in the trenches working in or around this issue or had their lives deeply affected by it somehow. And I think there are a lot of people out there serving this sentence who are worth a second look, who are absolutely worthy of redemption.”
Rofé remembers exactly when he first heard about juvenile murderers being incarcerated for life with no hope of freedom. “It was October 10, 2008; I was in Los Angeles at a friend’s birthday party,” he said. Rofé spent most of the evening talking with his friend’s father, a judge in Panama City, Florida. “I asked him what cases and trials had stayed with him throughout the years. He told me about a15 year-old girl who shot a cab driver in the back of the head killing him and who he sentenced to life without parole. I was taken by the fact that a 15 year-old girl did something like that, but I was also taken with hearing about life without parole for someone so young.” The judge told Rofé he was conflicted about handing down such a tough sentence.“His daughter had the same name as the girl he sentenced to life without parole; they were about the same age. He kind of bit his tongue, but he expressed that he wasn’t quite sure if that was the right move.” (Rofé later learned that the girl, Rebecca Falcon, had been gang raped when she was 13 and was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. When Rebecca’s grandmother urged her to tell her mother about the abuse, the mother instead married the boyfriend.)
Beginning the project, Rofé initially thought he would make a film about Rebecca Falcon. But after her attorney told Rofé he had a roster of 14, 15, and 16 year-olds in the same situation, Rofé realized there was a larger story to tell. “That set me on the path,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to open it up and examine multiple cases across the country as opposed to just one person’s story.”
Rofé spent four and a half years working on the film, admitting that two and a half years into the project, he literally “wiped the slate clean” and finally ended up with the subjects featured in the film. Those interviewed fall into categories. “There’s the kid who grew up in a gang culture; there was the kid who was abused and took vengeance on the abuser,” he said. The third category and the one that opens the film is the “thrill killer.” Rofé added: “Those were, of course, the most unsettling. It seems like you can chase your tail forever and ask why. You go and you meet their families and they remind you of your own. But there’s something that went very wrong. There’s some secret that was either unearthed or has yet to be unearthed that led to these crimes.”
The prisoners in Lost for Life are now adults even though they were sentenced as juveniles. For the most part, they come across as intelligent and introspective as they reflect on their crimes and why they did what they did. Jacob Ind, now 34 years-old, was 15 when he was arrested for killing both his mother and stepfather. Jacob had initially recruited a schoolmate to do the killings. When that boy botched the hit, Jacob finished the job. “Jacob, who I got to know very, very well, his mother sexually abused him in ways that are so horrific, you can’t even believe that these things exist,” said Rofé. “She used to give him enemas to prepare him for his stepfather.” On camera Jacob said: “I raised every red flag that I could and no one paid any attention. It put me in a very deep, dark place where I didn’t see any option.” Mary Ellen Johnson, author of The Murder of Jacob, commented: “Jacob is serving a life sentence for the sins of our community. Nobody helped him.”
Josiah, whose parents were in a religious cult, was convicted of killing Stacy Dahl, 39, and Gary Alflen, 47, during a robbery. “My parents would, like, have random prophets through the house that, you know, we’d be left with, and, we could have been protected better,” explained Josiah’s sister, Amber.
Sean represents the most hopeful story in the film. Now 38, he was arrested at 17, in a gang shooting. “Sean is the poster child for someone that America would write off,” said Rofé. “He’s black. He was a Blood. He murdered somebody in a drive by shooting. He was a drug dealer. Everything about him on paper says we should forget about him.”
Sean was released on parole and has dedicated his life to helping others who came from circumstances similar to his own. “I talk to him frequently,” said Rofé. “He’s married. He’s a great guy. He’s incredibly grateful and incredibly remorseful. He’s committed to, one day at a time, trying to make amends for what he did when he was so young.”
Rofé believes that community outreach is important. “I have always hoped that with this film, frankly, we would scare the shit out of kids who are in sixth grade,” he said. “Whether it’s the inner city or the wealthiest suburbs in this country, there are kids right now getting ready to commit horrific crimes. We’ll know their names tomorrow or a year from now. But I think the juvenile lifers themselves can share their experiences directly with kids who think there is no other way. “
When Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith saw Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation at Lincoln Center, she was eager to have it produced in the nation’s capital. And why not? Washington is the city where these conversations once occurred in the homes of D.C.’s hostesses (think Susan Alsop and Kay Graham) who played a pivotal role in bringing together opposing sides at elegant parties. Back then, after-dinner arguments may have become heated, but the rivals continued to break bread together, even stayed friends. When the play premiered in New York, in June, 2014, Donald Trump’s candidacy was a year away. In the current campaign climate, one can’t imagine Trump, or any of his opponents, remaining civil while sharing a meal. This old social order did exist at one time, however, and our country was the better for it.
Michael Simpson and Margaret Colin
The play opens in the fall of 1979 and is set in the Georgetown townhouse of liberal-leaning Hester Ferris (Margaret Colin). This evening Hester’s guests are Kentucky Senator George Mallonnee (Todd Scofield), and his wife, Carolyn (Jjana Valentiner). On Hester’s agenda are two items: the passage of a Ted Kennedy sponsored bill that would help the Massachusetts senator’s presidential bid, and the career advancement of her live-in lover, Chandler Harris (Tom Wiggin).
Hester’s widowed sister, Jean Swift (Ann McDonough, in an excellent performance) supports her sibling’s causes and helps plan the get togethers, while never attending herself. Throughout the play, Jean serves as a reality check for Hester, often delivering advice and warnings in droll one-liners that never fail to produce laughs.
Hester’s son, Colin (Michael Simpson), arrives home from abroad earlier than expected. Hester is thrilled, not only to see him, but also with the prospect of presenting a united familial front to woo the reluctant senator over to her side. Her plans are dashed, however, when she witnesses her son’s turn to the dark side, egged on by his girlfriend, Anna Fitzgerald (Caroline Hewitt). The two have just graduated from the London School of Economics, and Colin has returned a changed man, rejecting liberal opinions once embraced. Anna dispenses with any social niceties and plunges right in, criticizing everything Hester stands for and Colin once believed in. For her part, Hester looks with distain at Anna’s disheveled appearance and offers to lend her a black cocktail dress for the evening’s festivities. Anna accepts the dress, but not the idea that she should tone down her behavior. Joining the men for brandy and cigars and espousing her conservative views, she soon has the senator and his wife eating out of her hand – not what Hester had hoped for. What really stings, though, is Colin’s strident rejection of his mother’s ideals in front of the senator.
Margaret Colin and Tyler Smallwood
We flash forward for Act Two, finding ourselves smack in the middle of the Reagan years. Hester is now babysitting for her grandson, Ethan (Tyler Smallwood), who playfully bounces a rubber ball around the living room and asks to watch Cinderella on video. (There are jokes about using the VCR – remember those?) Hester’s love for her grandson is genuine and heartfelt. And like with Colin, she can’t resist sharing with Ethan her political views, something her son and Anna constantly complain about. This time around, Hester’s out to defeat Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. She and Jean have fashioned a letter that will run as an advertisement in newspapers where senators are still undecided about how they will vote. When Anna arrives to pick up Ethan, Hester scrambles to hide the letter, anticipating her daughter-in-law’s reaction. In contrast to the affection that Hester displays with Ethan, Anna remains all business. She’s left her bohemian look behind in favor of a severe dark blue suit in keeping with her position at the Justice Department, and she can’t seem to get out of business mode to cuddle her son.
Colin’s appearance has changed, too. His youthful bushy hair is now slicked back, Gordon Gekko style and he sports a ridiculous looking mustache. While Anna is supporting Bork’s nomination to the court, Colin is the one who has everything to lose if the effort fails. The New Hampshire senator Colin works for has gone all out to back Bork and could lose his seat. If the nomination is defeated and Hester’s role revealed, her son could lose his job. Anna finds the letter, confronts Hester, and delivers an ultimatum. Where do Hester’s emotions lie? With her son or with her politics? We learn the answers in the last scene, when we are transported to 2008, the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Caroline Hewitt, Margaret Colin, and Michael Simpson
Giardina has written an intelligent play with smart dialogue. The zingers oftentimes fly so fast it’s hard to keep up. This cast is up for the challenge. Brooklyn-born Margaret Colin is terrific as Hester, showing fierceness when defending her point of view, but warmth when watching over Ethan. Caroline Hewitt taps into Anna’s raw ambition. Because we all know someone like Anna as a fellow student, co-worker, or boss, the performance grates. Unlike with Hester, we never see a softer side to Anna, a hint of what Colin might have seen in her when he fell in love and married her. Michael Simpson’s Colin seems energized at the beginning of the play when he and Anna are a team confronting Hester. Yet by the second act, Colin seems defeated, resigned to his fate, having traded one strong-willed woman for another. He seems exhausted and beaten down, and Simpson allows us to see his despair.
Staging the play in the Fichlander, brings the audience into the action. The production team from Lincoln Center – Director Doug Hughes, Set Designer John Lee Beatty, Costumer Designer Catherine Zuber, and Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau – have worked their magic here, too.
While The City of Conversation places politics front and center, the play is really about family. We are expected to teach our children values and share our ideas with them, but at some point those children grow up and develop opinions of their own. One can only imagine the dinnertime conversations going on these days, if not in Georgetown townhouses, at tables around the country as young and old make decisions about the upcoming presidential election.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography:
Opening: Tom Wiggin, Margaret Colin, Caroline Hewitt, Todd Scofield, and Jjana Valentiner
The City of Conversation Fichlander Theater Arena Stage 1011 Sixth Street, SW 202-488-3000