It wasn’t planned this way, but the timing couldn’t be more apt. Just as the U.S. Senate is poised to confirm a “pro-life” justice to the Supreme Court, where abortion rights hang in the balance, WAM Theatre is poised to launch a play about Roe v. Wade.
Lisa Loomer’s Roe isn’t a docudrama in the mold of biopics like On the Basis of Sex, Just Mercy and Loving, charting the long hard road to a landmark legal triumph. It’s more like Inherit the Wind, the play about the Scopes “monkey” trial over evolution. Here, though, we get conflicting arguments not only from both sides of a cultural divide, but from the divergent viewpoints of the two principals – the young lawyer who argued the case and her client, a decidedly problematic standard-bearer.
As the play begins, these two address the audience. The attorney, Sarah Weddington, explains that since “history is the result of shared experience, it’s only fitting that all persons involved in Roe v. Wade be here to testify.” At which Norma McCorvey, the anonymous Jane Roe in the case, breaks in: “Look, sugar, how ’bout you just tell your story and I tell mine?”
Cut to 1970. Norma is slugging tequila in a lesbian bar in Dallas while Sarah is nibbling coffee cake in a women’s consciousness-raising group in Austin, where the talk turns to back-alley coat-hanger abortions and the germ of the case is seeded.
Roe was planned to open WAM’s 2020-21 season on stage in the Berkshires. Then the pandemic hit. But instead of cancelling or postponing the production, as so many other theaters have done, director Kristen van Ginhoven and her design team completely reconceived it for digital broadcast. The cast is led by Tara Franklin as Norma and Tracy Liz Miller as Sarah, with a multiethnic supporting ensemble of professionals from the regional theater scene.
In a recent interview, van Ginhoven explained that in pivoting to virtual, “We had to figure out how to fly the plane while we were in it,” and set designer Juliana von Haubrich said it was like “building a sand castle in a storm – the shape of it and what it could be kept changing.”
From the look of advance peeks behind the scenes, this is no homemade Zoom production, but a full CGI-enhanced cinematic staging. Each of the actors – there are ten, taking 40-odd roles – rehearsed from home, their scenes recorded in front of green screens. Those images were placed into digital surroundings so that actors appeared to be together in the same room. (For a scene in a pizza shop, two actors were filmed with identical red-and-white checkered table cloths which were merged into a single tabletop.)
At the outset, we see portraits of the Supreme Court justices who decided the case in 1972, as their faces morph into those of the actors who will portray them. Later, during oral arguments, we hear their actual voices questioning the opposing lawyers, played by actors.
Just as the ongoing debate over abortion rests on two seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints, the play’s two central figures present conflicting, often unreliable versions of events. While Sarah’s goal is to change the law, Norma’s priority is to get an abortion (she was raped, she claims). She’s hardly the ideal poster child. Her life is chaotic, fueled by drink and drugs, snatching at fleeting opportunities. When she reveals herself as “Roe,” she’s lionized and exploited by pro-choice feminists, and when she later recants, she’s feted and exploited by pro-life evangelicals.
The production streams for four days, October 17-20, with sliding-scale tickets starting at $15. Added programming for ticketholders includes talkbacks and small-group dialogues around issues of reproductive rights and a conversation with scholar-in-residence Laura Briggs. Info and tickets here.
I understand the playwright has revised her play since its premiere in 2016. I’m guessing the last line is no longer, “As of this moment, with the Supreme Court behind us, Roe still stands.”
Images courtesy of WAM Theatre
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