Goodman Theatre is currently presenting the Chicago premiere of Lisa Loomer’s ROE, directed by Vanessa Stalling, through February 23, 2020. The landmark case Roe vs. Wade, argued in 1971 and 1972, resulted in a 1973 7-2 decision, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, that there exists a zone of privacy and a right to personal liberty, emanating from the Constitution, and that States are limited in their ability to infringe on that liberty. The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction, struck down many U.S. state and federal laws, and incepted an ongoing debate about abortion.
In the course of the Trump presidency, States have begun what many would consider to be a degradation of Roe’s guaranteed protections, making it more and more difficult- especially for poor women- to obtain an abortion. This country has become deeply polarized along so-called pro-life (most often promoted by the “Religious Right”) and pro-choice factions.
Loomer’s play, updated since originally written and since the recent presidential administration, attempts to explicate the characters of the women who originally participated in the lawsuit, by and through the lens of various books actually written by the participants, and also by recreating symbolic scenes that illustrate their lives. Sometimes there is dialogue and action, and sometimes the characters explain themselves directly to the audience; sometimes the stepping-out-of-role interrupts the flow. All of the personalities are exaggerated to emphasize their iconic natures.
Sarah Weddington was a brand- new lawyer when she argued Roe v. Wade in 1971 and 1972. She and her colleague, Linda Coffee filed the case together in District Court in Texas, using Norma McCorvey, a 22-year-old year old pregnant lesbian bartender for their “test case” plaintiff, “Jane Roe”. McCorvey did not participate in the preparation of the legal case, either in Texas or when Texas appealed to the Supreme Court, did not in fact have an abortion, yet at one point worked in an abortion clinic. Ultimately, she converted to evangelical Christianity and was baptized by “Operation Rescue’s” Flip Benham in a backyard swimming pool, and claimed she was “used” by Weddington and Coffee. Weddington, who ironically had in fact undergone an abortion in Mexico while in law school, went on to become a law professor and is a former member of the Texas House of Representatives.
Loomer has said that ROE, which confronts both sides of the debate, “Is a way to tell a story not just about the issue, but about the cultural divide — about why we can’t even talk to each other as a country.” Presented through an unsparing lens that illuminates both the personalities of the characters, their clearly inapposite positions in the class structure of America, the legal issues AND the moral debate, the play is not exactly comfortable to watch, yet engenders deep responses from the audience.
As always, Goodman’s production points were enthralling, and the staging was absolutely breathtaking. The play opened to a large-scale recreation of the Supreme Court chamber, replete with marble floor and pillars. This reviewer, a trial attorney, was thoroughly taken with the brilliant device that included actual audio of the Roe arguments. The actors did not have an easy task, segueing back and forth from semi-parody to declamation, but mostly pulled it off with panache. Kudos to the entire 15-member cast, all of whom were necessary to support the whole. Christina Hall as Sarah Weddington deserves praise for retaining a plausible dignity throughout the attacks on “her” legal and personal ethics; Kate Middleton gave us a hard-bitten complex Norma; John Lister’s portrayal of the brilliant, deep-thinking and humane Justice Blackmun was a joy to observe.
Thanks to the production team including set design by Collette Pollard, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Keith Parham, sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, and projection design by Caite Hevner.
For information and tickets to all the great programs and performances at Goodman Theatre, go to www.goodmantheatre.org
All photos by Liz Lauren