What is true? What is false? And who gets to decide?
In Lisa Loomer’s powerful production of Roe, directed by Vanessa Stalling, at the Goodman Theatre, people change their minds and switch sides all the time. Loomer’s multifaceted script sees the controversial and polarizing landmark Roe v. Wade case colored through the lens of race, class, gender, religion, and sexual identity as she attempts to find a balance between the two dueling narratives that form the heart of the story. As the chief protagonists Sarah Weddington (Christina Hall) and Norma McCorvey (Kate Middleton) say upfront, “You tell your story. I’ll tell mine.”
The imposing set, a replica of the Supreme Court, establishes the tone. Before the show starts, headlines from 2019 and 2020 run above the stage—from the New York Times and NPR to Breitbart and Fox News—as if to say that we, the audience, are not only about to watch proceedings of immense importance but also something that continues to affect so many people today. The magic of Loomer’s ingenious script, though, is in the way it wavers back and forth between solemnity and levity. It’s risky but it works. The black robes of the Supreme Court justices quickly turn to the looseness of 1960s pop culture as the booming voices of Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield fill the theater (the selection of songs is spot-on throughout the production). Loomer, who has also worked as an actor and a stand-up comic, shows off her comic chops without in any way diminishing the gravitas of the situation.
In 1970, two young Dallas lawyers, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee (Meg Warner), agree to take on McCorvey’s case in order to challenge Texas law that prohibited abortions except to save the life of a mother. At that time, McCorvey was pregnant with her third child (her first child was raised by her mother, her second was given up for adoption). How many months pregnant she is when she meets the lawyers is very much at issue: Weddington says McCorvey was 4 months pregnant while McCorvey insists she was only 2½ months. Either way, Weddington tells her if she agrees to be the plaintiff, “You don’t have to use your own name.” She can remain anonymous—and so they choose the pseudonym Jane Roe. Later, McCorvey would say that she signed the affidavit without actually reading it; later still, she said that she was stoned when she met the lawyers.
The Supreme Court heard the case on December 13, 1971. There were seven justices rather than the usual nine in attendance and not one of them, Weddington slyly notes, “had ever been pregnant.” In January 1973, the Court ruled 7-2 in Roe’s favor. Speaking for the majority opinion, Justice Harry A. Blackmun (John Lister) stated that privacy rights under due process and equal rights clauses of the 14th Amendment allowed women to have an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. In a moving aside, Blackmun tells the audience that he received hate mail for the rest of his life, adding that his wife and daughter had a profound influence on his thinking. The emotional heart of the narrative though lies with the relationships between McCorvey and Weddington and McCorvey and her lesbian partner Connie Gonzalez (Stephanie Diaz).
Norma’s story begins in 1970 in a tavern called the Red Devil, where she is tending bar. Born in Louisiana but raised mostly in Texas, Norma is quick-witted, outspoken, and profane with a wicked sense of humor and a knack for colorful turns of phrase (“butter my butt and call me a biscuit” is one of her many memorable lines). Kate Middleton as Norma offers a sympathetic portrait of an incorrigible misfit, a lost soul in perpetual turmoil. Not only is she the product of a broken home, a runaway, and a thief who spent some time in reform school, she married at 16, quickly divorced and was left pregnant by three different men—all by the age of 22. To say McCorvey had a rough life is an understatement.
Roe travels across time and space. The sets vary from the bench of the most powerful legal institution in the US to a redneck bar, a bodega, a humble kitchen, a women’s clinic, and an adult baptism under a huge Christian cross. In order to create a sense of verisimilitude, recordings from the actual Supreme Court justices are used. According to playwright Loomer, much of the play is based on actual conversations as described in Weddington and McCorvey’s respective books (they wrote three books between them about the case). Using all the theatrical tricks available, characters directly address the audience and talk back and forth with each other on the stage even though they never actually met in real life. At one point Connie emphasizes the point, saying to Weddington, “We’ve never met and we’re never going to.”
After remaining anonymous for years, McCorvey emerges from her self-imposed silence, becoming a celebrity of sorts and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda at pro-choice rallies. Soon journalists, writers, filmmakers, and lawyers come calling. In 1989, Holly Hunter won a Golden Globe for portraying McCorvey in a made-for-television movie. All of this is dramatized to great effect. In one particularly hilarious moment, Roe offers a mordant sendup of the media scrum surrounding McCorvey as super-lawyer Gloria Allred and Holly Hunter, among others, parade across the stage, the latter clutching her award, the entire ensemble breaking out in a priceless rendition of “Everything Is Coming Up Roses” (with “Roe” replacing “Roses”).
Indicative of the times then and now, Roe culminates with a raucous town hall meeting between pro-choice and anti-abortion/Operation Rescue followers with everyone yelling past each other. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
The entire cast is a marvel. Both Christina Hall as Sarah Weddington and especially Kate Middleton in the pivotal role of Norma McCorvey offer nuanced portraits of two very different human beings with their own agendas who do things for their own particular reasons. Stephanie Diaz as Connie is a quiet and luminous presence despite her rather sudden departure from the scene. With her deadpan delivery, Meg Warner as Linda Coffee is a scene-stealer. After Weddingon and Coffee win Roe v. Wade, the self-deprecating Coffee announces to the audience, “I will leave now because this will be the highlight of my life, according to the Associated Press.”
McCorvey died at age 69 of heart failure in February 2017 in Katy, Texas, at an assisted living center. Before she died, she converted twice, first as a born-again Christian and then as a Roman Catholic. Was she a pawn used by both sides, as some have suggested? Norma herself notes, “I am Roe and I never got anything out of it, not even an abortion.” Weddington has the last word, for now. “As for the law itself,” she says, “its obituary has not been written. Roe v. Wade still stands.”
Roe ends appropriately with Florence Reece’s 1931 protest song, “Which Side Are You On?” Clever, powerful, and immensely entertaining, Roe reveals the human beings behind the famous headlines in this still all-too-relevant story.
Roe runs through February 23 at the Goodman’s Albert Theatre. Tickets ($20-70) are available online, by phone at 312-443-3800, or at the box office (170 N. Dearborn).