Putting the Great Debate Onstage

Special Features   Putting the Great Debate Onstage
Playwright Lisa Loomer tells the unknown story behind Roe v. Wade.
Sara Bruner and Sarah Jane Agnew Jenny Graham

“I’m interested in the complexity of human beings,” playwright Lisa Loomer says. “I see theatre as a place where we have the time to reveal people in all their complexity.” It’s “the only way we can have compassion.”

Complexity and compassion are at the heart of Roe, Loomer’s new play about Roe v. Wade, the historic 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing women’s right to abortion. The world premiere production opens at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., this month after performances in 2016 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Critics called the play, part of O.S.F.’s American Revolutions history cycle, “a rousing entertainment” and said it makes history “live and breathe onstage.” Bill Rauch, the festival’s artistic director, directs; the play travels in March to California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Loomer says that when she was asked to write about Roe v. Wade she had doubts. “My work tends to be a little theatrical. It tends to have humor, although it is very political in nature. I couldn’t see myself writing about a court case.

“[Then] I started to do research about the two women who were involved: Sarah Weddington, the brilliant young lawyer who argued the case at age 26, and Norma McCorvey” (the then-anonymous Jane Roe), a woman in her 20s who “had already given up two children for adoption. She was a hard-drinking pregnant lesbian waitress seeking an abortion.”

As Loomer read accounts of the women’s personal stories, it became clear to her that the way into the play was to look at Roe v. Wade “through the perspectives of these two women—especially considering they had an extremely interesting divide after the case that reflected the subsequent divided American culture.”

The divide between the women was that McCorvey became a practicing Catholic and an anti-abortion advocate.

The personal and cultural divide “is what compelled me,” Loomer says. “I thought, what a fascinating subject. This is a case that’s still being fought and argued 43 years later. It’s a subject that has been manipulated by the press and politicians for their own ends. What is it about this subject that causes this kind of divide? Why can’t we talk to each other? Why can we only scream and yell and argue?”

The divide is exemplified by these two women, Loomer says. “Sarah sees it as a legal issue—a means to give choice to American women, and she’s clear that without that choice a woman cannot determine the course of the rest of her life.” For McCorvey, “it’s personal. It’s about her feelings, her religious beliefs.”

Loomer’s play moves from 1973 to the present. “The first act is very much about the case, the winning of the case.” Then “we have a quick, very comical sequence that takes us through the 1980s. The second act looks at what has happened since in terms of objections to the case and the whittling away of access to abortions.”

Loomer likes to have humor in her writing. “My plays are always about serious subjects. But human beings are really funny, when you look at the things they do and say. Very often the scenes are filled with humor. I can’t help it. It’s the way I look at life. It was something in my cereal growing up.”


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