|Sara Bruner & Sarah Jane Agnew|
Almost forty-five years later after Justice Blackmun offered the Supreme Court’s decision and in a time when the country is now more divided than ever on almost every important social, environmental, and political issue, nothing still divides this country more than Roe v. Wade. To produce a play in 2017 about the history of that 1972 decision and the subsequent events, arguments, and claims/counter-claims over the past decades is both timely and audaciously bold. Any discussion of Roe v. Wade is a Pandora’s Box potentially ready to explode, even in a über-liberal community like Berkeley – especially when both sides of the issue are well presented with voices that are surprisingly human, credible, and even at times, likeable. Berkeley Repertory Company presents, in conjunction with Oregon Shakespeare Company and Arena Stage, the world premiere of Lisa Loomer’s Roe – a play that is sweeping in time, scope, and the number of key players. Often feeling like a documentary film telling long-ago history, Roe also has the immediacy of a real-time interaction with us as audience as full participants.
Before a row of nine, black-cloaked justices, two women begin to address the audience, often saying the same words in unison before stopping to contradict one or two of the words just said by the other. As the key protagonists of the story we are about to hear, Norma McCorvey (or as we know her, “Jane Roe”) and Sarah Weddington will reveal as plaintiff and arguing attorney their own histories and connections with each other, the case and its decision, as well as the subsequent and continued controversies and conflagrations. Their stories sometimes coincide but often collide and conflict, especially as the years mount after the decision. As we watch the drama of their lives unfold, what is fact and what is fiction sometimes depends on whose ultimate truth one buys.
|Sara Bruner, Sarah Jane Agnew & Susan Lynskey|
Plaintiff and attorney meet in 1971 over pizza and beer when Norma is already quite pregnant. She is just looking for a safe abortion in a state (Texas) where women of money go to Mexico or California for such a procedure. Poor women like Norma use coat hangers, pencils, Lysol, or vacuum cleaners (or are raped in a dark alley before one of those or even worse methods is used on her by a so-called doctor). Sarah Weddington and her feminist and side-kick friend, Linda Coffee, are looking for a woman to serve as plaintiff – someone to remain anonymous, to be identified as Jane Roe, and to give this twenty-six-year-old attorney who has never tried a case in court the ammunition she needs to bring suit to the Texas courts and eventually the Supreme Court. And thus begins an initially cautious but mutually beneficiary relationship that later turns rocky and ultimately becomes adversarial as Jane Roe the Person and Jane Roe the Case clash in terms of needs and goals.
Sarah Jane Agnew’s Sarah Weddington transforms before us from just a member of a group of feminists who meet to read drafts of Our Bodies, Ourselves, explore together their cervices, and then to enjoy cake together into a young lawyer with bold, sweeping intentions of national, societal change. We watch her gain strength of conviction and courage up to the point that she finally says to the Court, “We are here to argue a decision that the woman has a constitutional choice to make herself.” Continual evolution of her forcefulness as a lifelong crusader to protect that right is embedded in the character Ms. Agnew so believably portrays as Sarah Weddington – as well as the antagonism and eventual rivalry that develops over the years between her and her initial key to success, Jane Roe.
As Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”), Sara Bruner is immediately a wonder to watch as she unfolds before us her Louisiana-based persona that has been shaped by a mother who called her “Ugly Stupid” instead of Norma and who took control of Norma’s baby from her first (of three) unwed pregnancies and then never let her again see the daughter. But this same Norma is also one who, in her Southern Creole/Texas drawl, wryly and with some twinkle in her eye continuously spits out lines like “I am so poor I can’t afford to pay attention” or “I was as nauseous as a fish on an escalator.” Prone to drinking, weed, and LSD (but she reminds us, “This was the /70s. after all”) and later sniffing cocaine (“This was the ‘80s, after all”), Norma’s life proceeds in anonymity and somewhat quiet bliss as she moves in with a Mexican-born lover, Connie (played with big heart, much patience, and a willingness to forgive by Catherine Castellanos). Anonymous, that is, until Reagan is elected; and the world becomes concerned Roe v. Wade needs a face on Roe to help counter the rising tide to over-turn the decade-old decision.
And suddenly, Norma is no longer just an unknown part of a controversial court-case title. She is suddenly yanked from the cleaning business she co-owns with Connie and put into the nation’s spotlight by Sarah and the now legions of pro-choice supporters. In one of many hilarious moments of an otherwise serious, often emotional documentation of this history, Director Bill Rauch orchestrates a Hollywood moment as Norma is transformed by hair dressers, cosmologists, speech coaches much like Dorothy was before going to see the Wizard of Oz and then is introduced in a rousing “Everything is Coming Up Roe” (think ‘Roses’) song-and-dance stage number. Sara Bruner once more shifts her persona as she steps in front of national TV cameras and begins a series of talk show appearances, often with much tongue-in-cheek humor built in by Director Rauch. “Silence, no more ... We will not go back” is Norma’s and Sarah’s joint, mid-1980’s message – one applauded loudly by the Rep’s 2017 audience who today are feeling that same sentiment in the Trump era.
As the panoramic picture continues to unfold, Mr. Rauch’s highly inventive approach is for characters to switch roles and wardrobes right on stage as elements of Rachel Hauck’s effective but overall simple set design rolls in and out. Often watching from above are one or more Supreme Court justices -- sometimes shaking heads in disagreement, other times nodding approval. Projection designs by Wendall K. Harrington take us inside a Texas bar, Mexican grocery, the steps of the Supreme Court, or the home of Connie and Norma. And all is appropriately and wonderfully highlighted and starkly spotlighted by a superb lighting design by Jane Cox while the music and background mood is set for each decade and setting by Paul James Prendergast’s subtle but effective sound design.
|Amy Newman & Gina Daniels|
The Nineties and Act II bring a new set of characters as the pro-life movement gains dollars, followers, and larger-than-life personalities. Jim Abele, who earlier played Texas’s cocky and sexist Supreme Court lawyer Jay Floyd, becomes Flip Benham, the minister and leader of “Operation Rescue,” which moves next door to the Women’s Productive Center where Norma and Connie now work as volunteers. We see scenes too familiar as an Operations Rescue volunteer (played with scary sincerity by Amy Newman) intercedes and convinces a weeping pregnant woman not to go into the next-door Women’s Center for a much-wanted abortion (heartbreakingly portrayed by Gina Daniels).
The Rescue’s dynamic, all-American-looking leader, Flip, is persuasive, persistent, but also pleasant -- full of welcoming smiles and surprisingly respectful to Norma as she comes and goes to work. His wife Peggy (Susan Lynskey) and daughter Emily (Zoe Bishop) provide more faces and voices to ‘the other side;’ and in Lisa Loomer’s script and approach and through the actors’ individual skills, the family’s message is presented with plausibility, sincerity, and actual love – even to an audience hostile and suspicious (i.e., Norma as well as those of us gathered at Berkeley Rep).
Sara Bruner once again is jaw-dropping excellent as Norma. Big reversals of her stance and attitude towards abortion are at hand for Norma, and Ms. Bruner is stunning in her ability to make us believe how and why Norma undergoes such transformation. The sequences become even more real as the entire auditorium becomes a studio for a live debate between her and Sarah Weddington; and what was once just a play begins to feel very real, very present, and very tense as questions, comments, and testimony start coming from the arena’s floor and balcony. Particularly touching – and at first difficult to tell if part of the script or actually an audience member moved to speak – is the story of Roxanne (Kenya Alexander), a young woman who tells a story with such deep hurt, emotion, and conflict that no one leaving the evening will likely ever forget her few minutes in the spotlight.
In the end, it is so clear that Roe actually has no ending. The story, the next steps, and even the outcome are once again in 2017 so much up in the air and unknown. Lisa Loomer’s highly unusual approach to telling this history and these personal stories where no one is totally righteous and no one, totally a villain is breath-taking. Everyday humor and kindness are intertwined with expressions of hate and stories of horror. Words now recorded in books are mixed with side comments with winks to the audience. People still alive and (many) people now dead appear in real-time before us, and everything and every body feels in many ways right now, right here in America. Brilliant is this co-production by Berkeley, OSF, and Arena.
Roe is a production that should be a must-see by all who think they already know all they need to know about which side they stand on Roe v. Wade.
Rating: 5 E
Roe will continue through April 2, 2017 in the Roda Theatre of Berkeley Repertory Company, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling the box office at 510 647-2949, Tue-Sun 12 to 7 p.m.
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