Where: Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Feb. 23
Virtually everyone has heard of Roe v. Wade, but how many of us know much, if anything, about the people behind the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case ruling that the U.S. Constitution protects a pregnant woman's right to have an abortion without excessive government restriction?
That's the main question Lisa Loomer addresses in her highly theatrical “Roe,” which originated at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016 and is enjoying a top-flight Chicago premiere directed by Vanessa Stalling at Goodman Theatre. With healthy doses of humor and heartbreak, as well as meta-dramatic techniques, the playwright traces the conception, gestation, birth, and aftermath of the case, presenting a remarkably balanced picture of arguments, moral and otherwise, that still rage nationally today in pro-life versus pro-choice debates and in court cases that seek to overturn that 7-2 decision.
But Loomer does something else that's equally relevant in the age of Trump: She examines how facts are used and abused to shape versions of the “truth” that are influenced by everything from race to religion. This shifting dynamic, of course, protects her from accusations that she failed to tell the whole story or told it inaccurately, though she's certainly done her best with the essentials.
The focus is on two women. Sarah Weddington (Christina Hall) is a 26-year-old lawyer who fervently believes in a woman's right to control her body and, with her colleague Linda Coffee (Meg Warner), wants to challenge the Texas ban on abortion. To do so, she needs to find a pregnant plaintiff who hasn't been able to get one.
Enter Norma McCorvey (Kate Middleton), a pregnant 22-year-old originally from Louisiana who's an alcoholic, drug addict, lesbian, and decidedly down on her luck. She's already had two children (her mother took one, and the other was given up for adoption) and signs on, using the pseudonym “Jane Roe” (Jane Doe was already in use in another case) at her lawyers' suggestion to protect her anonymity.
The road leading from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Henry Wade was the local district attorney) to the Supreme Court, where Weddington was arguing her first case, is convoluted and captivating. Sexism and other prejudices rear their ugly heads, and we also hear part of Justice Blackmun's (John Lister) majority decision, which includes limitations.
Even more fascinating, though, is the evolution of Norma McCorvey, not a very sympathetic character to begin with. She has her baby and gives it up for adoption long before the case is decided and is basically back where she started until she tries to rob a store and instead finds a lover in Connie (Stephanie Diaz), the kindest character in the play.
Connie remains devoted to Norma, even when the latter reveals she's Jane Roe and is lured away to Hollywood, where she's exploited by a variety of people who promise her fame and fortune. After she returns and both women go to work in an abortion clinic, she has the most unlikely conversion of all. In 1995, she's convinced by Rev. Flip Benham (Ryan Kitley) of the Evangelical anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue to become a Christian and pro-life. This puts yet another strain on her relationship with Connie, and whether Benham cares about her soul or is just another person exploiting her remains an open question.
Along the way, Weddington and McCorvey, who never attended the court hearings, both write books about the case, and one of the devices Loomer uses is to have them confront each other about their very
different accounts of what happened. She doesn't overtly come down on one side or the other, but the scenes we see acted out don't support Norma's claims about being lied to and deceived. Weddington remains steadfast in her convictions, and it's probably worth noting that she's still alive whereas McCorvey died not too long ago.
Speaking of that, the characters often address the audience directly, and the playwright amusingly has those who have died quote from their obituaries, especially as they bow out of the proceedings. Their names and dates are projected in large letters (projections by Caite Hevner) on the walls of Collette Pollard's imposing set, which is an effective way of helping us remember who's who in a work with lots of players and a fair amount of doubling.
Before the show starts, headlines past and present relating to the ongoing abortion controversy are projected onto the set, which features huge columns and is initially set up to suggest the Supreme Court with a long table behind which are big chairs. The design is fluid, however, and with the help of the movable furniture, banks of lights on the stage's side walls (lighting by Keith Parham) and Mikhail Fiksel's sound, the scene shifts from the pizza parlor where McCorvey and her lawyers meet for the first time to Los Angeles and beyond.
“Roe” is a vivid reminder of how history can be made by ordinary, even flawed, individuals—and also of the strange, less-than-reassuring workings of our legal system. But what strikes me most about Goodman's production is the outstanding stagecraft. The acting also is excellent, and Middleton's mercurial McCorvey stands out, as does Kitley's persuasive Benham (despite his beliefs).