Goodman Theatre (Albert)
At the Goodman (Albert) Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago – There is probably no more contentious issue on the American scene that the argument over whether women should have access to legal abortions. Give playwright Lisa Loomer credit for taking on the inflammatory subject head on at the Goodman Theatre. The pro-choice and anti-abortion factions may argue that the play takes sides against them though Loomer seems to take an even handed approach. But for zealots on both sides, even handed may not be good enough. It’s the familiar “if you aren’t with us you are against us” debate.
First a bit of historical background. In 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Roe versus Wade that state laws could not forbid a woman from having a legal abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. The case arose after an impoverished young Texas woman named Norma McCorvey was denied an abortion in Texas in 1969. McCorvey sued Henry Wade, the Dallas County district attorney, in an attempt to overturn the law as unconstitutional. McCorvey (who died in 2017) was called Jane Roe in the case to conceal her identity.
Loomer divides “Roe” into roughly three parts. The first traces the evolution of the case from a discussion in a Texas restaurant primarily between McCorvey and attorney Sarah Weddington. The middle part concentrates on McCorvey’s biography from the resolution of the case through her change from hard scrabble loser to media celebrity. Eventually, McCorvey switches sides, renouncing her pro-choice position and accepting the mentorship of a far right Christian Protestant minister who leads an anti-abortion movement called Project Rescue. Later McCorvey converts again, this time to Roman Catholicism. The final portion of “Roe” largely discards narrative and turns into a heated exchange between the pro choice and anti abortion advocates.
“Roe” breaks no fresh ground in the abortion debate. We have heard all the arguments, pro and con, before as enunciated with passion by each side, neither brooking any attempt at compromise. Loomer does provide some fresh interesting tidbits. Weddington and McCorvey both wrote books on their experiences, with numerous conflicting facts. Loomer portrays how neither side was above manipulating their stories for media consumption to burnish their views. McCorvey gradually becomes the core of the play as we observe the pressures this unsophisticated woman faced from both sides. But overall it’s a familiar debate and it’s highly improbable that anyone’s mind will be changed by the drama.
“Roe” premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017 and has undergone revisions since its opening. Loomer has stated that the script is in a consistent state of examination and revision and what we see on the Goodman stage likely is not the final word. Indeed, as “Roe versus Wade” comes under threat from the current Supreme Court the story could take a radical turn in the near future.
The play in its present form is informative, both dramatic humorous, and crowded with theatrical characters. The production employs 15 performers, many doubling and tripling in roles, as the narrative moves through 50 years of history. Goodman has imported Kate Middleton to play Norma. Middleton appropriately looks and sounds much like Roseanne Barr. Middleton evokes a woman who is overwhelmed by the historical events stirred up by “Roe versus Wade”. Norma is easily manipulated by strong personalities that want a piece of her to enhance their own agendas. Norma eventually insists that she had become a pawn of the pro choicers (Norma never did get an abortion, giving birth to three children that were all put up for adoption) and becomes a spokesperson for the anti-abortion side.
Christina Hall’s Sarah Weddington portrays a young woman who as she takes on legal and religious establishments and entrenched social attitudes. Today it is difficult to grasp what an uphill battle Weddington fought in then later 1900’s to win her landmark case. Her insistence that Roe versus Wade is as much about gender and class as it is about reproductive rights resonates throughout the play, views readily accepted by society in general today but much resisted and ridiculed back then.
Among the first rate supported cast, special praise goes to Ryan Kitley as the right wing minister whose fervency cannot be doubted, though his anti-gay viewers blacken his stance, along with comments about America founded as a devout Christian nation that should beware of “mongrelization.” Stephanie Diaz is outstanding as Norma’s Latina lesbian companion, maybe the most decent and generous-spirited character in the play. Raymond Fox, Meg Warner, and Kirsten Fitzgerald, a trio of Chicagoland theater stalwarts, make valuable contributions in a cluster of varying roles.
Vanessa Stallings beautifully orchestras the staging, with characters smoothly breaking historical continuity and sometimes speaking directly to the audience. Collette Pollard’s set is basically an acting arena enclosed by Greek columns that keep the focus in the story as a courtroom combat zone, whether the specific site is a downscale bar or a press conference. Jessica Pabst has designed a vast wardrobe of costumes that evoke the time and place and class status of the abundance of characters who flow through the narrative. Keith Parham deigned the lighting and Mikhail Fiksel the sound, the two combining with Caite Hevner’s projections to effectively provide the many visual and aural shifts in atmosphere.
Loomer deserves much credit for attempting a drama that almost certainly will roil all sides of the abortion question. The story’s outcome, at least to the present day, is well known, so there isn’t much suspense. The drama is a crowded mosaic of characters but only a few are well rounded figures, with the narrative largely to the relationship between Helen Weddington and Norma McCorvey. The opening night Goodman audience reacted positively to the case made by the pro choicers, no surprise there. But there were no show-stopping displays of either approval or outrage from the crowd. Viewers seemed content with a well written and well staged show that honorably confronts a subject that only as very brave playwright will explore.
‘Roe’ gets a rating of.
“Roe” runs through February 23 at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $70.
Call (312) 443-3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org/Roe.