Before “Roe” gets underway, as the theater audience takes its seats, a series of headlines is projected across the top of Collette Pollard’s majestic set, which evokes the Supreme Court building’s portico of Corinthian columns. The headlines are credited to newspapers and publications around the country, each describing a different state’s newly enacted or proposed restrictions to abortion access. Seemingly dozens scroll by in the minutes before the house lights go down. The datelines are all within the last couple of months.
And so before the play even begins, director Vanessa Stalling has established that “Roe,” Lisa Loomer’s 2016 work — now receiving its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre — about the people behind the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, isn’t strictly a history play. Nearly half a century after that 7-2 decision, the right to choose that it established is among this country’s most divisive, and politically propulsive, issues. Justice Brett Kavanaugh told Sen. Susan Collins ahead of his confirmation vote in 2018 that Roe v. Wade is settled law, but many activists and state legislatures hope he’ll help unsettle it if they can get the right case to the top court.
Finding the right case to take to the Supreme Court was, of course, how Jane Roe was born, and Loomer’s play focuses on the two women who birthed her. In 1970, Sarah Weddington (Christina Hall) was a recent law school graduate working with a group seeking to challenge Texas’ abortion ban. Norma McCorvey (Kate Middleton) was a troubled and penniless 22-year-old, pregnant for the third time, who was referred to Weddington and became Roe, the anonymous plaintiff in Weddington’s class-action suit, without ever being present in court.
The two women’s accounts of the case’s origins would later differ — McCorvey, after revealing her identity in the 1980s, frequently contradicted elements of her own telling — and so Loomer takes a metatheatrical tack to let them both have their say.
The play opens with Sarah being introduced and taking the stage looking rather like she does today (she’ll turn 75 next week), addressing the audience about the threats to Roe v. Wade as if we’re at a pro-choice rally. She asks us who remembers the choices women faced before Roe; at Monday’s opening performance, a few women in the audience responded.
But she’s soon interrupted by Norma, who wants to have her say about the ways she feels she was wronged by Roe. A peeved Sarah agrees they can both have their turns at the mic, as long as the story gets told. And from there, Hall and Middleton shed their matronly outfits and hairdos right in front of us (with the assistance of onstage dressers), to become their characters’ younger selves.
The use of direct address, though, doesn’t recede. Nearly every member of the 15-actor ensemble, most of whom play several characters, gets to break the fourth wall at some point, often to address irreconcilable inconsistencies. As Sarah’s co-counsel Linda Coffee (Meg Warner) argues in an aside from Sarah and Norma’s first meeting over pizza and beer, Weddington and McCorvey recalled things differently years later, but McCorvey’s story kept changing for years to come, so perhaps the objective truth will never be found.
Norma comes across as unknowable even to herself. A self-identified lesbian who tells Sarah her current pregnancy is the result of rape, but later says that was a lie, Norma leaves her incredibly patient partner Connie Gonzalez (Stephanie Diaz) for the spotlight when she comes out as Roe, then leaves Connie again years later when she falls in with the anti-choice activist group Operation Rescue and becomes a born-again Christian. (The real McCorvey died in 2017.)
While it’s fairly clear which side of Roe v. Wade Loomer comes down on, the playwright goes out of her way to let every argument be heard. “Roe” was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its multiyear “American Revolutions” program to create 37 plays about U.S. history, and the script carries the definite whiff of an assignment that was taken on, rather than an idea that sparked Loomer’s imagination.
She seems to struggle at times with the (perhaps self-imposed) task of presenting all sides. When, late in the second act, the play suddenly devolves into a scripted “town hall” so even more voices can be heard, I worried that we were off the rails.
But Stalling’s lively, often surprising staging covers over many of Loomer’s cracks, and Hall and Middleton’s performances are wonders of empathy, coloring in characters that are otherwise lightly sketched.
And Loomer, to her credit, nails the landing with a callback to Linda Coffee’s aside about the impossibility of getting to empirical truth. A college student (Kayla Carter), who’s become pregnant by accident and is boiling over with conflicting feelings and arguments about what to do, gets to appeal to Norma and Sarah directly: Is what’s inside her a life? Cutting off Sarah’s constitutional argument, the student begs: “Don’t give me the law. Give me the truth.”
To which Sarah can only respond, gently: “Whose?”
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.