Roe, the new play from Lisa Loomer about the woman at the heart of the 1973 Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, is much like its main subject: easily distracted, unbalanced, but undeniably compelling.
Roe (at Arena Stage in Washington, DC through February 18) at first suggests that it will be a story of two women. The play opens with Norma “Jane Roe” McCorvey (Sara Bruner) and lawyer Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) speaking in unison. We're encouraged to think that their life trajectories, before and after the case that brought them together, will tell us something about abortion and moral conflict in America.
But there's a problem. I'm sure the real Sarah Weddington, who argued and won Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, is an infinite marvel and a walking cathedral, as are we all. But the character “Sarah Weddington” in this play is boring. Unlike Norma, who's mercurial and troubled, Sarah never doubts the righteousness of her position. She does change over the course of the play: She gets plumper and more strident. Meanwhile Norma is a blast, a hard-drinking, high-living party girl, a train wreck and a woman desperately seeking love and redemption. Norma transforms more than once—from lesbian barfly to abortion-rights icon to Christian conservative—and her hunger and vitality blaze out at you in every stage of her life.
Roe uses a mix of theatrical styles, even including brief snippets of musical numbers, in order to suggest the difficulty of pinning down the truth. Class-based resentments color the way Sarah and Norma tell their stories. Characters break the fourth wall to tell us where they ended up, sometimes comically (“It will always be the high point of my life—according to Wikipedia”) and sometimes tragically (“I died,” one lesbian bar patron says as she sardonically wags a bottle, “of cirrhosis of the liver”).
This self-consciousness about historiography encourages audiences to ask how well Roe represents the political conflict over abortion. Roe is an issue play. It tries to cover all the important angles—sometimes naturally, as when a character describes the coerced sterilizations being performed on black women in Texas at the same time that the Roe battle was going on; sometimes clunkily, as when a college student describes her several thwarted attempts to obtain a legal abortion.
Is Roe a piece of abortion-rights propaganda? It tries not to be. We do get brief glimpses of many different arguments against abortion. At one point the sound design even plays a fetal heartbeat through the theater. There's an early, intensely powerful short speech about a woman who's raped by the man who performs her illegal abortion. There's nothing equivalently raw and real on the pro-life side. (There are also lots of applause-line abortion-rights slogans. I'm okay with having less of the pro-life equivalent of those.)
There are a lot of missing stories: No one in the play regrets an abortion (McCorvey herself never got one—her case took too long to make its way through the courts) or is coerced into one. In almost fifteen years volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center, I've had girls ask me, “Can my mother really force me to kill my baby?” I've seen women's anguish over the fact that if they choose life for their child, they'll lose their job or be kicked out of their home. Even if you don't believe that abortion is inherently violent, inherently an abuse of power, abortion can become a tool for coercion. Roe hints that Norma's mother became an abusive alcoholic because she didn't have the freedom to abort Norma—which is pretty inhuman—but doesn't explore the fact that women in desperate situations often find that a pregnancy they didn't want offers a chance to start again, to escape abuse, to get their lives in order. Roe tells the stories of women who wanted an abortion and found it hard to get. The play never imagines what it’s like to believe abortion is wrong when all the authorities and powers in your life are lined up to pressure you to violate your conscience.
Beyond these missing stories, the most striking absence in Arena's staging of Roe is the absence of images of developing unborn children. I know many women in the audience would have had abortions themselves, and so pictures of an eight-week embryo would be hard to bear. But it's bizarre that we see the impact of pictures of the unborn—there's a tense, unresolved scene in which a woman flees an abortion clinic after speaking with a sidewalk counselor—but never get to see them ourselves. This decision protects the audience from a disturbing reality.
And yet Roe is moving and memorable. At the center of the play is Norma's religious conversion. Act I ends with Norma in a stable, loving relationship with a woman, and working at an abortion clinic—where Operation Rescue head Flip Benham (Jim Abele) has just decided to set up shop. In Act II, Flip sees himself in Norma. He too was a drinker and a disaster. He tells her that she's smart, she's good, she's worthy of love—a murmur of compassion and awe went through the audience, their resistance to right-wing evangelicalism totally overcome by the emotional honesty of the script and the acting. Under all Flip's televangelist glitz and politicized easy answers, there's a truth: God loves you, and no matter what you've done, you can come to Him.
But that truth comes with so much pressure toward dishonesty: Norma goes back in the closet, pretending her steadfast lover Connie (Catherine Castellanos) is her “aunt”; they have two painful conversations where Norma may be trying to find a language for their love which would fit the Christian morals she's being taught, but she comes across as if she's rejecting Connie and denying the reality of the care and tenderness they shared. Cut free from Connie's steadying influence, Norma again becomes a media star, this time denouncing abortion and declaring that homosexuality is a choice. Norma's hunger for love becomes once more a hunger for approval.
The pro-life movement often says, “Women deserve better than abortion.” The version of Norma McCorvey in this play also deserved better than the camera-ready Christianity she was offered by the American church.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.