Review: ‘ROE’ grapples with history, humanity and heartbreak
“Roe” was born in 2015, 42 years after its namesake, when playwright Lisa Loomer was prompted to write a script for a project about a critical moment in American history. Since then, Loomer has adapted the script in rhythm with the ever-changing landscape surrounding reproduction rights in America. The most recent update, after the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, is an obituary for Roe v. Wade, and it premiered by Stages in Montrose.
Directed by Kim McKean, “Roe” cuts through a 50-year buildup of political discourse and divisive rhetoric in an attempt to humanize the people behind Roe v. Wade. At the center of the play is the story of Sarah Weddington (Kelley Peters), the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, and Norma McCorvey (Teresa Zimmerman), the plaintiff and face behind the intangible Jane Roe. Weaving in and out of Weddington and McCorvey’s stories, “Roe” is an engaging and masterful play that captures the nuances of two women who defined America’s abortion movement in the late 20th century.
Like any other form of storytelling, “Roe” is not immune to historical inaccuracies. History is told by the victors, and “Roe” knows this. Throughout the play, characters constantly break the fourth wall, saying “according to my Wikipedia profile...” or “my obituary said...” to the audience. By acknowledging how stories are changed over time, “Roe” tells the story of Sarah and Norma with a degree of humility, knowing that they aren’t — and don’t need to be — the sole authority over Roe v. Wade’s history.
“Roe” is also focused on capturing the humanity behind the court case. Zimmerman portrays the sharp-tongued Norma, a poor woman in her early 20s who lost custody of her previous two children and was seeking an abortion for the third, with an equal balance of cynicism and compassion. Norma frequently drops rousing zingers — biting back to a friend’s remark that she’s going to hell on a scholarship with a terse “I’m tryin’” — but never fails to remind the audience of the difficult realities of having your body turned into a form of ideology.
“All you cared about was Roe the case. You didn’t give a damn about Roe the person,” Norma told Sarah in a pointed scene towards the end of the play.
The play lends this humanity to both sides of the story. Even anti-abortion activists such as Flip Benham (Foster Davis), an evangelical minister, or Ronda, a pro-life woman (Skye Bronfenbrenner), are portrayed thoughtfully and are granted a level of dimension.
It certainly helped that the play was set on a small thrust stage, which gave it the dual advantage of maintaining a large backdrop — often used throughout the play to broadcast archival audio and video from the actual ruling in 1973 — and creating intimacy with the audience. With three front rows on each side of the stage, the actors were only ever a few feet away from the audience. When the cast had fun, so did the audience, laughing along to frantic costume changes set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” or oddly intimate speculum scenes where a housewife proudly declares “I tried to find [my cervix] last week, but my husband and son came back early.”
All of the actors shone in their roles, but Zimmerman particularly takes the cake for her tender portrayal of Norma’s journey toward Christianity and her desire to find a community. In a contemporary world that is marked by scathing commentary about abortion from both sides, Zimmerman’s depiction of Norma and her relationship with Benham is uniquely touching.
In an impassioned scene where Norma recounts her own obituary to the audience, Zimmerman yells, “I died of a broken heart! This country never gave a shit about me,” a startling yet necessary reminder of Norma’s own humanity.
The play ends in a courtroom debate scene, with Sarah and the now pro-life Norma fleshing out the classic arguments for and against abortion. Their arguments are punctuated with a pregnant cast member who arises from the audience, scared and begging for the truth about her pregnancy. With finality, Peters sums up the crux of the play and the stories it seeks to tell with one question: “The truth? Whose?”
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