Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Of Legal, Moral and Personal Concerns: At Goodman, 'Roe' Wades Into History and Her Story-- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Lisa Loomer
directed by Vanessa Stalling
Goodman Theatre, Chicago 
Thru February 23

For decades, I have heard of Roe v. Wade as the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States, with the decision announced on January 22, 1973.

But--unless I once knew but long ago forgot--I didn't realize that Roe wasn't the actual surname of the plaintiff.

With "Jane Roe" serving as something of an every woman pseudonym, a la John Doe, a Texan named Norma McCorvey brought suit--seeking to attain a legal abortion--in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas in 1970.

Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade was the defendant while Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington were McCorvey's attorneys.

In watching Lisa Loomer's two-act play, Roe, nicely staged under the direction of Vanessa Stalling at Chicago's erstwhile Goodman Theatre, it was clear that I knew rather few of the details or participants in the famed case.

And as with How to Defend Yourself--a play by Liliana Padilla concerning a rape on a college
campus, which I saw the night before--I appreciated a dramatic work taking on a weighty and always timely topic.

But also somewhat similarly--although I liked Roe a good bit more--I wasn't as engaged, illuminated nor moved as much as I would've liked.

Roe is a deft attempt by Loomer to cover a controversial and complicated issue, and to do so with respect to both sides.

Simply to learn something, the show is well-worth your time, but on a theatrical level I think it tries to do too much, which dissipates much of the pathos and even--in a narrative reaching across nearly 50 years--lessens the lessons surrounding the Supreme Court case.

McCorvey and her primary lawyer, Weddington, both of whom wrote books about Roe v. Wadeare the main characters onstage, nicely embodied by Kate Middleton and Christina Hall, respectively.

And both spend a good deal of time breaking the 4th wall, speaking directly to the audience. (Wade doesn't much factor in.)

Somewhat reminiscent, for me--and yes, with a reference well off topic--of how the Sex Pistols were formed when London impresario Malcolm McLaren sought those who could play the part of a nascent and shocking punk band, we learn that McCorvey and Weddington connected at a time when the latter (and Coffee) were looking to represent pregnant women who were seeking to challenge America's abortion ban.

Although McCorvey's case took years to reach the Supreme Court--she gave birth before the case was even heard in Texas, to her 3rd child, none of which she raised--and Roe's first act does cover a good part of this groundwork while introducing us to several characters beyond the main two, the case's known resolution seems to come fairly abruptly, in a narrative sense.

Act II jumps us forward several years from 1973, and then several more years.

It's interesting to see what became of McCorvey and a variety of changes in her life--though her devoted lesbian lover, Connie (Stephanie Diaz) was part of the story from early in Act I.

I won't say too much, but was somewhat intrigued by enemies become friends twists, including the dynamic between Norma and a prominent anti-abortionist named Flip Benham (played with abundant charm and smarm by Ryan Kitley).

As written, Roe is well-structured by Loomer, finely rendered at Goodman by Stalling--who has become a top local director in recent years--and enacted by a strong cast including many rotating through multiple roles.

Kirsten Fitzgerald, John Lister, Jessica Dean Turner and Raymond Fox are among the supporting players doing fine work.

But though I have strong views on abortion while being respectful of those who feel otherwise--and think Loomer pulls off the balancing act pretty well--I just wasn't pulled in as powerfully as I would've liked.

While watching, I envisioned a smaller, simpler, less ambitious play also letting me learn about Norma McCorvey--even more acutely--and what transpired in Roe v. Wade, with considerably more pathos.

Topically, Roe is quite important, and well-presented. But theatrically, it isn't transcendent. 

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