With the right to abortion more perilous than ever, North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s (NRACT) decision to produce Lisa Loomer’s play, Roe, feels almost too timely. Originally commissioned through the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions program, it premiered in 2016 before the presidential elections. The production eventually traveled to Washington’s Arena Stage, coinciding with the 2017 Women’s March on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Now, as the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn the 1973 decision, the arguments that influenced Roe v. Wade reverberate even more loudly. And while they are given a substantial amount of air time, most of the drama in Loomer’s play focuses on the two women at the center of that landmark case.
Norma McCorvey, poor, rootless, and pregnant for the third time, was the anonymous plaintiff, Jane Roe. Sarah Weddington was a fresh-out-of-law-school lawyer when she argued this case before the nation’s highest court. And while these two young Texan women were relatively close in age, their lives followed quite divergent trajectories, reflecting much about the country’s cultural divide over this issue, as well as division within the women’s movement.
Both Christine Rogers (Weddington) and Melanie Carviou (McCorvey) offer compelling, nuanced portraits of their characters, particularly when each directly addresses the audience and offers explanations for discrepancies in their accounts or actions. From their initial meeting, it is clear that they have different expectations over the pending case: McCorvey wants an abortion while Weddington is focused on a woman’s right to choose. Both the public and personal battles are explored.
By looking at Roe v. Wade through the lens of the people involved, Loomer seeks to present as many viewpoints as she can squeeze into the drama. Twelve actors portray 60 different characters that bear some influence on the decision or represent competing points of view. From Judge Blackmun (Jim O’Brien), who delivered the verdict to Flip Benham (Nick Popio), the evangelical preacher who heads Operation Rescue, to the parade of women making decisions about whether to have an abortion, the play works overtime to be even-handed.
Against a backdrop of nine black-robed headless mannequins, scenes shift in time and locale with many characters only lightly sketched in as representations of various viewpoints. But the characters that were more fully realized allowed actors like Debbie Litwak-Kring (Norma’s mother, Mary), and Aliana Ramos (Norma’s girlfriend, Connie) to offer captivating performances. Amber Wynn provided some needed comedic moments as Linda Coffee, a young and earnest lawyer who worked with Weddington on the case.
This play anchors the rhetorical battles that continue to rage almost 50 years later, but also emphasizes the complexity of issues surrounding the right to choice. Unfortunately, the once optimistic ending may soon become irrelevant.
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