When the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade in 1973—making most abortions legal in the United States for the first time—the decision marked the end of a very long road.
But in Lisa Loomer’s remarkable new play Roe, running through Oct. 29 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the playwright shows that the landmark Supreme Court decision is very definitely not the end of the story. Taking place just before the intermission, the Roe v. Wade decision is merely the first turning point for two real-life women whose names will forever be linked to the abortion question.
One is Texas lawyer Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew, marvelous), the young, married attorney who, at the age of 26—in her very first court case of any kind—successfully argued the pro-choice case before the Supreme Court. The other woman is poor, undereducated, frequently pregnant Norma McCorvey (a magnificent Sara Bruner).
Better known as “Jane Roe,” McCorvey was the anonymous plaintiff whom Weddington recruited and then represented in the case. As played by Bruner, she’s also one of the most fascinating, complex, frustrating and hilarious characters to hit the OSF stage in a very long time.
On a spare, mechanized set of gleaming metal, the tale begins as Weddington and McCorvey address the audience, testily battling one another as each attempts to narrate the story. As a large cast portraying dozens of characters, the run-up to the case takes place with mounting drama, followed by the even more remarkable aftermath in which Weddington continues to battle to keep the Roe decision from being reversed or compromised, and McCorvey unexpectedly evolves from defender of choice to primary mouthpiece for the “right to life” movement.
The question becomes, at what point did McCorvey—clearly used by so many different people—finally start playing the system herself? Is she a victim or a con artist—or a little of both?
Directed with impressive reserve and invention by Bill Rauch—who will remount the show next year at Berkeley Repertory Theatre—Roe is surprisingly rich in humor and plot turns. Whatever you think you know about this most divisive of issues—an issue made freshly relevant given the Supreme Court’s ruling on Texas abortion law—you will leave Roe knowing much more, and possibly questioning your own conclusions.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★★
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs yearly from February to October, in Ashland, Ore. For information on all currently running shows—and two more yet to open—visit osfashland.org.