Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Over the forty-six years since that landmark decision, the issue continues to be hotly contested and has never been far from the front page. That is what makes Roe, Lisa Loomer's galvanizing play, in its Midwest premiere at Mixed Blood Theatre, as timely today as it would have been in 1973. In fact, the play goes far beyond the initial decision written by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, to the aftermath of state and federal laws and administrative orders chipping away at the protections Roe v. Wade seemed to guarantee, and to the heated contest between those for and those against it, broadly identified as either pro-life or pro-choice. Loomer takes us up to this very minute, leaving us with a caution that says that, for all intents and purposes, the end of the play has not yet been written.
At the heart of the story is the twisted tale of Jane Roe herselfthe pseudonym for Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the case. Roe presents a frank look at this woman, who, at her death in 2017, was no longer a champion for abortion rights but an advocate for the pro-life factions. Loomer gives us a close-up and personal look at the demons that drove this mercurial woman whose legacy across our nation has stretched far beyond humble origins. Loomer contrasts her with Sarah Weddington, the ambitious and idealistic attorney who pled the case before the court, who lived her life on a far broader canvas than Norma, forsaking personal satisfaction for "the cause," taking Norma along for the ride. Was she Norma's champion, or did she use Norma for her own ends?
Loomer employs a documentary style in which the narrative moves at a fast-clipped, journalist pace, with characters turning to the audience to introduce themselves and give us their side of the story. She begins with her two protagonists both crowding the stage, each trying to be in charge of the narrative. Norma McCorvey starts the story in Dallas in 1969, where she was a 22-year-old, lesbian bartender, finding herself pregnant for the third time. She drinks a lot, swears a lot, and has a dim view of the law, having spent much of her teen years in a reform school. Sarah Weddington begins in Austin, where she is a 26-year-old University of Texas law student who has yet to try a single case before a judge, and is angered by laws that infringe on women's privacy and equal prevention rights by forcing them to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full term. Some states make allowances for women who had been raped, or if the pregnancy endangers the woman's life, but even these are patchwork and hard to obtain. Sarah is committed to the rights of all woman, not only those society labels as victims.
Norma and Sarah take turns narrating and arguing the validity of their perspective and decisions, but it is Norma's story that holds center stage. Among a host of characters, we meet Norma's hard-bitten mother, who usurped custody of Norman's first-born child away from her; Norma's long-time partner Connie Gonzalez; and Flip Benham, national director of the pro-life group Operation Rescue, who challenges Norma's pro-choice history, leading to her baptism as a born-again Christian and anti-abortion advocate, stating that she had been used as a pawn by Sarah. In fact, despite the ruling in her favor, Norma did not get the abortion she soughtby the time of the decision, she was too near term to do soand never appeared in court. Sarah took Norma's story as the basis for her case without ever bringing the woman herself to light, a point which stoked bitterness in Norma for the rest of her life. For Sarah, it was never about Norma, but about making things right for all women.
Tracey Maloney is dynamite as Norma McCorvey, feisty and vulgar, possessed of untamed energy and anger, and prone to use others as easily as she lets herself be used. Maloney depicts a lost soul who is too deep in the muck of her hard-times life to know just how lost she is. At the same time, she can be a hoot, tossing out such lines as "I'm so poor, I can't afford to pay attention." As Sarah Weddington, Laura Zabel is a model of virtuous idealism, striving for justice and fighting to hold the ground that has been gained. It is only through small cracks in her veneer that Sarah allows us to see her failings, and a hint of regret, not for her accomplishments but for price she paid.
Lisa Suarez brings the power of love stretched to the breaking point to her portrayal of Connie Gonzalez. Bonni Allen is cutting as barbed wire as Norma's mother, whose rejection of everything about her daughter explains a lot about Norma's untethered life. As Flip Benham, Michael Booth does an amazing job of making his rise from bad-boy to bible-thumping savior of the unborn feel sincere, even as he slyly manipulates Norma to his camp. Kate Guentzel brings the nervousness of a woman steeling herself to challenge the status quo as Sarah's colleague, lawyer Linda Coffee, and later conveys placid calm and assurance as an Operation Rescue staff member.
Dame-Jasmine Hughes bring her usual fire to two small roles, as Norma's partying friend Aileen and as a pregnant woman torn between the abortion clinic she was heading for and the path offered by the pro-life activists. A very young actor, Olive Middleton, is positively radiant as the sweet, guileless little girl who pleads with her mom to invite Norma to church with them. Jamila Joiner has a stunning, unexpected role as Roxy, a woman who wants to cut through all the obstacles being thrown in front of her as she seeks a legal abortion, and just wants to get to the truth. Sam Bardwell and Patrick O'Brien complete the hard-working ensemble, excellent, each and every one.
Director Mark Valdez keeps things moving at a breathless pace, remarkably creating tension and suspense around a story whose outcome and follow-up has been on the evening news for decades. The bare stage with projected titles labeling each scene and locale creates a starkly chilling atmosphere on which the truth can play out, although we increasingly are aware that it depends upon whose truth is being told. The historic context Roe is aided by Sarah Bahr's apt costumes, particularly witty in dressing members of a 1969 women's consciousness-raising group, and by Emma Gustafson's well-chosen wigs. Period music featuring strong women's voices, such as Janis Joplin and Tracy Chapman, embellish the sense of time.
Roe is a powerful piece of theater, well documented with an abundance of facts about Roe v. Wade and the ongoing struggles over a woman's right to choose. It avoids the tendency of many issue-focused plays to feel pedantic, or become dry and lifeless in their eagerness to deliver a message. While playwright Loomer's sympathies with one side over the other in this debate are easily discerned, she is careful to be respectful of those on both sides, and to show that no one is without their faults.
With the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and an administrative rule restricting federal funds from going to any health service provider that offers information about abortion services, we know that the story that began in either Austin or Dallas continues to play out all across our nation. Roe may not change very many people's minds as to where they stand, but it provides a deeper understanding of the complexity and the human face of the issue. Mixed Blood, true to form, has given this compelling play a riveting production that demands attention.
Roe, through March 31, 2019, Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. Radical Hospitality tickets are free at the door two hours prior to performances. Advance tickets that guarantee seating are $35.00. Mixed Blood members ($9.00 per month) receive a ticket to all productions. For advance tickets and membership information call 612-338-6331 or go to www.mixedblood.com.
Playwright: Lisa Loomer; Directed by: Mark Valdez; Movement Director: Brian Bose; Set and Media Design: Anna Robinson; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Assistant Sound Designer: Isabel Patt; Wig Designer: Emma Gustafson; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Raúl Ramos; Assistant Stage Manager: Jorge Rodriguez-Sosa; Producer: Jack Reuler; Production Manager: Catherine Campbell.
Cast: Bonni Allen (Rhonda/ensemble), Sam Bardwell (McCluskey/ensemble), Michael Booth (Flip/ensemble), Kate Guentzel (Linda/ensemble), Dame-Jasmine Hughes (Aileen/ensemble), Jamila Joiner (Roxy), Tracey Maloney (Norma McCorvey), Olive Middleton (Emily), Patrick O'Brien (Judge Blackmun/ensemble), Lisa Suarez (Connie/ensemble), Laura Zabel (Sarah Weddington).