“It is really hard to talk objectively about history,” a character states during Roe, which continues at Horizon Theatre through June 12. And how true that is, given that history is still being written about the matter at this very moment.
Just a week before this exuberant and exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) production of Lisa Loomer’s 2017 play opened earlier this month, a leaked draft from the conservative majority Supreme Court became public. It declared its intention to overturn the almost 50-year-old landmark Roe v. Wade decision that affirmed that women have a constitutional right to privately decide what to do with their pregnancies.
The Roe story presented here spans several decades and features key real-life characters such as Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued and won Roe v. Wade at the age of 26, as well as the “real Jane Roe” herself, the fascinatingly complex Norma McCorvey. Loomer’s work debuted at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., just two weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the year of the Women’s March.
Looking back, the first month of 2017 feels like an entirely different era altogether. Pre-#MeToo, pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, pre-insurrection and pre-Trump’s appointment of enough anti-choice Supreme Court justices to begin rolling back laws that, perhaps, many had taken for granted not so long ago.
Roe’s first act spans 1969 to 1989, while the second deals just with a pivotal three years in the early ‘90s, then jumps forward to today. The “today” of 2017, that is. So, in some strange ways, the play, as directed by Lisa Adler, feels simultaneously more relevant than ever while also oddly dated. Again, though, the issue is that history is currently being scrawled across TV news screens in real time, and the outlook is grim for women — especially poor women of color who are disproportionately impacted by anti-choice legislation.
Recognizing the exponentially growing distance between our present and the relatively recent past has become easier to spot. It’s there whenever a piece of art or comedy that captured the zeitgeist just five or so years ago now, upon rewatch, seems stale or adorably
naïve (at best). Consider, for instance, how many have noted that Lin Manuel-Miranda’s magnum opus Hamilton did not age so well in the short intervening years between its phenomenal stage success and its debut on Disney+ in 2020.
Norma McCorvey, who died in 2017, led a tumultuous life. She was raised by an abusive mother in Louisiana and had a brief marriage to an abusive man when she was 16. She was also a lesbian finding her way into adulthood during a deeply intolerant time when it could be dangerous on every level to come out of the closet. Initially, she sought legal help in Texas because she thought it would help her find a doctor to perform an abortion. However, by the time the case was settled almost a year later, she had wound up having to carry her pregnancy to term and give up the baby for adoption.
For decades, McCorvey spoke at pro-choice, Second Wave feminist rallies, even living with Gloria Allred for a time (which yields in the play a fun musical interlude with a number from Gypsy changed to “Everything’s Coming Up Roe”). But later in life, she became disillusioned with the feminist movement, which she perceived as using her as a symbol without caring about or supporting her as a person. At that point, she converted to evangelical Christianity and became a strong supporter of anti-choice organizations and politicians.
Played with empathy and charisma by Rhyn McLemore, Norma is a tricky part to pull off. The character can be irreverent and funny, and it’s hard not to sympathize with the rotten hand she’s been dealt over and over. But she can also come across as selfish, manipulative and misguided. She hurts those around her. Her decisions can be befuddling and enraging and all too understandable. That’s the making of a great character study.
Jennifer Alice Acker is compelling, as well, as Sarah Weddington, who became a star in women’s advocacy for the rest of her life (she died last December). Her sarcasm and gutsiness are delightful as she channels Julia Sugarbaker with tongue-in-cheek comments such as, “I was so focused on my career that I let my subscription to Good Housekeeping lapse.”
Daniel Parvis as Flip Benham mines some sharp comic delivery skills in several parts that could be summed up as “misogynists who mean well.” Particularly as bigoted born-again Christian pastor Flip Benham, whom Norma at first calls “Flip Venom,” Parvis excels in smarminess. The real-life Benham, part of extremist anti-choice organization Operation Rescue, has a long list of awful deeds, including stalking a doctor in Charlotte, to the point where the pastor was ordered to stay 500 feet away, and protesting outside the weddings of gay couples. But here, Parvis demonstrates through slimy charm just how Norma might have gotten seduced by Flip’s master salesman techniques. We first meet him at the top of Act Two as he greets the audience with a cheery, “Welcome. Welcome to the gates of hell!” grinning like an anti-choice Charles Manson.
Other cast standouts include Lorraine Rodriguez-Reyes as Connie, Norma’s long-suffering partner. Shelli Delgado does fine work in the ensemble as one of the Kool-Aid-drinking extremists at Operation Rescue, who manipulates through sunshiny friendliness. Though underutilized in this production, the talented Jasmine Renee Ellis has some nice moments, too, particularly as a woman trying to find a clinic to get an abortion, only to get tricked and guilt-tripped by anti-choice activists.
Over the nearly three-hour run time, the play also presents how accounts of the same events may conflict with one another, accurately reflecting the multiple versions, sometimes told in different ways by the same person. Characters frequently break the fourth wall to deliver epilogues for their characters.
There are clever and delightful tricks in the writing where the same character enters and replays the scene twice, such as an empathetic doctor first and the second time with a vague but thick foreign accent and questionable medical ethics. This illustrates the two different characterizations that Norma wrote in her two books.
On the other hand, some of the play’s parts don’t work as well — often when dramatic tonal shifting is involved. For instance, a consciousness-raising scene is part Vagina Monologues, part harrowing documentary, as it moves abruptly from body-related joke-telling to brutal and detailed descriptions of what pre-Roe abortion was really like.
This production, I should note, has experienced challenges due to the continuing pandemic, with some cast replacements on the night I attended. Most of those were seamless and impossible to spot without prior knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes. So it’s also remarkable to behold the agility that Horizon and other theater companies have adopted to present timely programming.
Ultimately, after this epic experience of fascinating history, character exploration and depressing déjà vu, the biggest questions I walked away with were, “What can we now make of this?” What does this show offer to a May and June 2022 audience that we aren’t already viscerally feeling? Does it offer catharsis for anyone who might be deeply worried about the state of women’s rights? Not necessarily. Does the play offer interesting context and valuable insight into what preceded this moment? Yes. Does that make for a satisfying evening of entertainment? That depends on your mood and whether you’re looking to escape or fully plug into the ever-updating news scroll of history.
Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian magazine. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.