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“Roe,” which opened this week at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, brings the most famous case in Supreme Court history to life. “Roe” playwright Lisa Loomer has gained national recognition for transforming difficult subject matter into theatrical performances, and examining the controversial case, which rendered first-term abortions legal, is her latest endeavor.
Rather than focusing on the details of the case that has been at the centerpiece of the culture wars in this country for 45 years, Loomer instead introduces us to the two women whose lives became forever intertwined one night at a run-down pizza joint when they formed an attorney/client relationship. Norma McCorvey, “Jane Roe,” and Sarah Weddington, her lawyer, came from wildly different backgrounds but shared a common desire to make abortions safe and legal.
I have been teaching Women and the Law for nearly a decade so the Supreme Court case, the story behind the case, and the impact that studying the case can have on students are quite familiar. Yet Loomer’s approach to unpacking the timeless issues surrounding a woman’s right to control her body is fresh and clever.
Loomer chooses not to answer many of the questions at the heart of the case. Why did Sarah Weddington choose to represent Norma, an alcoholic lesbian pregnant for the third time? Why didn’t she wait and let the cases percolate through the states, the route her “sister-in-law” Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously preferred? Why did Norma agree to become the plaintiff knowing that her case may take longer than her pregnancy? The play instead gives us the opportunity to explore how a few seemingly random decisions could have such a profound impact on the lives of so many women in the years since the pivotal court decision.
There are moments in the play that are pure camp with an overemphasis on sharing names for vaginas and changing wigs that made such an important topic feel underdeveloped. Weddington’s transition from a prim and proper young lawyer to activist was given short shrift; and Norma’s desire to please seemed to be an easy underlying excuse to explain her shifting stories and loyalties.
Yet the two lead actresses, Bri Sudia and Terri Weagant, whose relationship deteriorated following their partnership, were revelatory in their respective roles. Their unholy alliance driven by personal motives underscores the ever-present rift such a truculent issue has caused in our society.
Sudia’s break-out performance, much like Christina DeCicco as Billie in last season’s “Born Yesterday,” was compelling and formed the very soul of the production. Sudia marvelously transitioned from a meek and quiet young feminist to a confident, even strident lawyer capable of making an all-male court listen to her with rapt attention in a particularly moving monologue that left the audience roaring with praise. In the second act, she was a role model for career-long activists, as she has continued to this day to protect the volatile and vulnerable decision.
Weagant successfully embodies McCorvey, whose tragic life propels her to make some unfortunate decisions. Her best scenes occur in her quiet moments with wonderful supporting actors, Michelle Aravena, her long-suffering partner Connie Gonzalez, Nate Burger, the pastor Flip Benham, and Gigi Spanolo as Emily, a young girl involved with Operation Rescue. Ultimately, however, it is hard to fully empathize with McCorvey, particularly when she abandons both her partner and her cause.
Loomer stated that she expected the play to debut in Washington D.C. during the inauguration of the first woman president, a life-long supporter of choice. Instead the show has taken on new meaning now that the Court’s tenuous hold on Roe is perhaps more vulnerable than at any time in the past four decades. The final line of the show “as of this moment, Roe still stands” was particularly emotional. The rush of nervous yet joyous energy in the audience was palpable as the two leads hugged in triumph on opening night.