When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival asked playwright Lisa Loomer if she’d be interested in writing a play about Roe v. Wade, she was understandably skeptical. The 1973 Supreme Court decision, which legalized a woman’s right to an abortion, marked a historic moment, but more than 40 years later the issue is far from settled.
Loomer says she wasn’t sure Roe v. Wade would make good theater, so she started reading about key players on both sides of the issue. She says, “That, for me, was the story of the divide in American culture. I thought [Roe v. Wade] was a great prism for looking at that divide.”
But Loomer knew her play needed to be even-handed. She says, “I wanted people to feel, as they watched the play, that their point of view was represented, if nothing else because that helps people be more open and willing to hear another point of view.”
The result, Roe, is currently playing at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It opens by introducing its two main characters: Norma McCorvey, aka “Jane Roe,” the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued the Roe side of the case. McCorvey was a hard-living, hippie-ish 22-year-old who, in 1969, found herself poor and pregnant for a third time. The play shows her pleading with her doctor to give her an abortion. She tells him she tried to get it done illegally, but the place she went to “looked like a ghost town, like somebody’d moved out of there real fast. There was blood all over the floors, roaches, sheets like filthy rags.”
Her doctor’s response: “Maybe you should have thought about consequences before you got pregnant for a third time.”
Weddington was also in her 20s, but she was a very different person. The daughter of a Methodist minister was one of only 40 women at her Texas law school of 1,600 students. As it happened, she already knew a lot about abortion: She’d had one in Mexico, something she didn’t reveal until years later.
In 1970, Weddington and another young female attorney filed a suit in Texas that challenged the state law on behalf of all Texas women seeking an abortion. The Supreme Court heard the case in 1971, and the play puts the audience in the middle of the action. In Roe, the lawyers make their arguments facing the audience, and audio of the real justices’ responses (acquired from Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute) plays from the back of the theater. Loomer says, “I thought it would be more dramatic than actors onstage, and more daunting for Sarah [Weddington] to face the voices of the real judges.”
The case was reargued in 1972, and the Supreme Court didn’t rule in favor of Roe until 1973 — far too late for McCorvey to get an abortion. But the play doesn’t stop there — it goes on to explore the personal and public battles that ensued. Weddington joined the Texas House of Representatives and continued to speak out for a woman’s right to choose; McCorvey worked in abortion clinics, but then reversed her position on the issue and became involved in the anti-abortion rights organization Operation Rescue.
In one scene, an Operation Rescue activist named Ronda tries to talk a woman out of getting an abortion. She explains that when she got pregnant with her daughter, her fiancé wanted her to abort. She says, “I was in my doctor’s office and I happened to see a picture in one of those pamphlets they give you. I saw the precious little hands and feet. And no, I may not be a scientist or a medical person, but I have eyes just like you do, and no one, no one could tell me that this was a fetus and not a human being.”
Loomer’s play is full of nuance and complexity. When one character’s account doesn’t line up with another’s, the characters break the fourth wall to explain the discrepancy. No one is portrayed as flawless or a hero; everyone is human. And that’s what theater is for, Loomer says. “I think of the theater as a place where we come together, sit together in the dark, to contemplate an issue from a very, very human point of view.”
Roe may be a history play (it’s part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s groundbreaking series American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle) but, according to Loomer, so much of what happens in it is still happening right now.