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Play ‘Roe’ shows both sides of the story

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The name “Roe” means something different to every person. For some, it evokes the image of a scared, young woman on a doctor’s table. For pro-choicers, it is a victory cry, a triumph for women’s reproductive rights. For pro-lifers, it is a tragedy, a word that represents the death of millions. For all, it’s the 1973 Supreme Court case that changed the landscape of abortion in America forever.


But before Roe was synonymous with one of the most controversial topics in the country, she was a person. Pro-lifers often try to humanize the abortion issue by giving a face to the unseen, unborn human.  “Roe” playwright Lisa Loomer humanizes the two women who ended up making abortion legal throughout land: Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, an earthy, down on her luck lesbian who wants an abortion, and Sarah Weddington, a feminist lawyer who needs a pregnant woman to challenge the law.


While briefly united in their pro-choice quest, their class and lifestyle differences as well as their eventual divergence of opinion on abortion provide the tension and, despite the weighty topic, the humor that moves the play along.


The story begins with pregnant 20-something McCorvey, played by Sara Bruner, looking for an abortion. She is scarred by her unloving mother, a failed abusive marriage, the loss of her first two children to other caregivers, and by heavy drug and alcohol use. Through various acquaintances, Weddington, played by Sarah Jane Agnew, finds McCorvey, who agrees to be the plaintiff in the case against the state of Texas.


Playwright Loomer’s goal in writing “Roe” was to allow the audience to feel compassion for characters on both sides of the abortion issue. “I have never seen an issue that is more divisive,” Loomer said in an interview. “I remain curious and daunted by it.” In this objective, she succeeds.


In one scene, Weddington explains the unsafe, exploitative and even pitiable conditions women experienced during illegal, “back alley” abortions. The audience is reminded that having a child meant a woman could not finish her education or continue working, something that is no longer applicable today.


Pro-life sidewalk counselors are portrayed as smarmy Bible-thumpers, yet they are allowed to tell their stories —  their sincere joy at having chosen life for their children when confronted with unwanted pregnancies. When McCorvey works at an abortion clinic, the uncomfortable truths of abortion that pro-lifers often tout are shown: late-term abortions, women with multiple abortions and the tangible by-products of an abortion  —  a dismembered fetus.


“Roe” begins with the court case, but goes through the five decades of legal abortion to show the evolution of the fight on both sides, and the evolution of McCorvey’s beliefs. Eventually, she reveals her identity as Jane Roe, and is both courted and snubbed by popular feminists of the day. She befriends Operation Rescue, the controversial pro-life activist group, and becomes a pro-life Christian. She leaves her longtime partner Connie Gonzalez, who believes that McCorvey has been used by both movements.


Along the way, the play pokes fun at the occasional absurdity of 70s feminism, the hairdos and outfits of the 80s and McCorvey’s inconsistent accounts of her past. From the very beginning of the play, Loomer acknowledges that unbiased history, from both Weddington and McCorvey, is impossible to come by.


The last scene is a familiar debate stage, led by present-day Weddington and McCorvey, who trot out the usual arguments for and against abortion. To break the rhetoric, a scared, pregnant girl arrives in search of an abortion clinic, only to be thwarted by the many state regulations. She tearfully turns to Weddington and asks, “Is it a baby? Tell me the truth.” Weddington, channeling Pontius Pilate, responds with, “Whose truth?”


Though an engaging play, in the end, “Roe” fails to humanize the most salient class of all: the unborn. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017