Abortion is a deeply personal, controversial subject for most Americans, regardless of their gender. The landmark Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade back in 1973, which legalized abortion, is still a hot-button issue for many politicians, states, voters, and others.
The play Roe by Lisa Loomer, which is having its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre through Feb. 23, puts the issue at center stage for audiences, delving into the real-life individuals at the heart of the case: Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff known as “Jane Roe”, and Sarah Weddington, the Texas lawyer who argued the case at the nation’s highest court.
As you enter the theater, you can’t help but notice the tall Supreme Court-like pillars along the back and sides of the stage and the rotating news headlines projected on screens above those pillars.
The headlines are extremely recent; they’re all from 2019 and even 2020, with sources like CNN, the National Review, the Wall St. Journal, and Fox News. Headlines range from “Chicago man charged with threatening to attack abortion clinic” to “Massachusetts bill would allow abortion until birth” to “Pennsylvania Republicans unveil ‘heartbeat’ anti-abortion bill”.
You also notice that the pre-show music, played at a higher-than-expected volume, is familiar: female singers like Carole King (“I Feel the Earth Move”), Katy Perry (“Roar”), and Kelly Clarkson (“Stronger”). The combination of Collette Pollard’s set design, projection designer Caite Hevner’s visuals, and recorded music by strong women leads the audience to believe that they’ll be seeing a very serious, educational drama about women in control.
The last thing I expected the play to cause the audience to do was laugh. And yet, at various points, we did.
That’s partly because Lisa Loomer’s approach to this story is quite creative. Norma, Sarah, Sarah’s colleague Linda Coffee, Norma’s live-in girlfriend Connie, and others often interrupt the story to speak directly to the audience, providing context that might not otherwise be apparent.
Some of these asides are serious (one character saying, “I would be murdered in another three years by a former boyfriend”) and some of them less so (a character briefly sniffing cocaine and then telling the audience, “Don’t judge – it was the ‘80s!”).
Another creative touch in Loomer’s script is the use of actual audio clips from the Supreme Court sessions on Roe v. Wade, including justice questions/comments that her actors can appropriately respond to.
Director Vanessa Stalling has been blessed with an excellent ensemble cast and wonderful lead actresses, especially Kate Middleton as Norma. Norma’s life – both before and after the court case – was pretty dysfunctional and took some unexpected twists. When she gets her 15 minutes of fame, you can’t help but laugh as various assistants briefly break into a song parody, “Everything’s Coming Up Roe!” And while the play is titled Roe, Connie – Norma’s patient lover/friend/roommate – is the emotional center of Norma’s life; Connie is played with touching sweetness by Stephanie Diaz.
As Sarah, the attorney whose first contested case was this one, Christina Hall is the first actress to speak to the audience, Sarah and Norma serving as co-narrators of the decades-spanning story. Over the years, both Sarah and Norma wrote books about their involvement in Roe v. Wade; Loomer’s script has a lot of fun pointing out details that differ between Sarah’s book and Norma’s, and even between Norma’s first book and Norma’s second.
It may go without saying, but this is not a play to bring young children to. A story Sarah relates early on about a teenager’s agonizing experience pursuing an illegal abortion has some very upsetting details; another character who appears late in the play during a “town hall” has a heart-wrenching story about her experience years after abortion became legal.
If you’re an adult, though, and you have an open mind on this issue, or you want to have a better understanding of the people behind the court case, or you just want to have a theatrical experience that will almost certainly generate discussion or research after the show, see Roe. It’s entertaining, educational, and excellent.
• Paul Lockwood is an enthusiastic singer, frequent local theater actor, Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, occasional theater reviewer, and past president of TownSquare Players. Recent shows include Morning’s at Seven, 42nd Street, Once Upon a Mattress, and On Golden Pond.