The Great Divide

Talk About Timely: New, Probing Play About Roe v. Wade Opens in Washington

With Trump geared to make Supreme Court appointments, Roe is under threat again. The questions are as relevant today as they were 44 years ago.

C. Stanley Photography/Arena Stage

Lisa Loomer worked as a stand-up comic along the way to being a playwright, and she’s known for plays about serious issues that also have humor in them. She’s dealt with immigration, breast cancer, and homelessness. Her play Roe, about the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, continues in that tradition.

“I take the issue very seriously, but human beings are funny and having humor helps open their minds and their hearts,” she told The Daily Beast.

Roe opens at Arena Stage in Washington on Jan. 18, two days before the inauguration of a president who has said he will appoint judges who may overturn the 1973 landmark ruling, and nine days before the 44th annual Right to Life march on Jan. 27.

A record turnout is expected for the march with the future of Roe v. Wade threatened and anti-choice activists emboldened. Kellyanne Conway, one of President-elect Donald Trump’s top advisors and a longtime opponent of abortion rights, will address the marchers on the National Mall.

Loomer says she hopes Trump attends Roe with a daughter seated on each side. While that’s unlikely given his criticism of the ruling and his party’s staunch opposition, Loomer says, “With Trump, you never know.”

The play debuted in Ashland, Oregon, last April amidst expectations of a different political outcome from the one we got in November. Loomer is mindful of the minefield she is operating in with a new president and partisan emotions running high.

When first approached about writing a play about “Roe,” Loomer hesitated. “I don’t think of myself as a courtroom dramatist,” she says, and theatergoers should know that while there is one scene in the first act in the courtroom, the remainder of the play is about the cultural clash of views that animates the abortion debate then and now.

Loomer tells the story of the landmark ruling principally through its two main protagonists, lawyer Sarah Weddington, who was 26 years old when she began arguing the case in 1971, and plaintiff Jane Roe, later identified as Norma McCorvey, 22 at the time, two months pregnant, and working as a bartender.

McCorvey already had two children and was seeking an abortion, which was illegal in Texas, where both women lived. McCorvey did not get an abortion, but Weddington got her case. Taking the position that the state’s anti-abortion statute was unconstitutional, she filed suit against Henry Wade, the Dallas district attorney responsible for enforcing the statute.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which two years later, in 1973, ruled 7-2 in favor of legalizing abortion within the first trimester, based on the right of privacy, while recognizing the interests of the state in regulating abortion in later stages of pregnancy.

In writing the play, Loomer did not meet with or talk to Weddington, though she did send her the script. She had no contact with McCorvey. “I did really try,” she says, contacting her agent, her minister, and her former priest. “I could not get a hold of her or even locate her.”

McCorvey revealed her identity soon after the Court handed down its decision, and over the years she evolved from a troubled poster child for abortion rights to a pro-life activist working with Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group. She credited her change of belief to Operation Rescue’s national director, Flip Benham, who baptized her in a backyard swimming pool in Dallas in 1995.

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For audiences who are not familiar with this turn of events, or were too young to have lived through those years, Loomer reports there are audible gasps during the second act of Roe when McCorvey reveals her decision to switch sides.

Roe is especially timely because of the divisions plaguing American society, and not only around abortion. Loomer depicts both Weddington and McCorvey in ways that make them sympathetic figures to those who might not approve of their actions.

In President Barack Obama’s farewell speech, he urged people to listen to the other side. “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk to one in real life,” he said. Only by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can you fully understand their perspective, and that’s what Loomer tries to do with a dozen actors playing multiple roles and arguing with each other across the decades.

“I can’t say I want to bridge the divide,” says Loomer. “I want to look at it, humanize it, understand it—and the first step is having people tell their story, and having the ability to listen to someone else’s story, and to understand, and have some compassion.”

The play begins and ends in the present, but the first act goes back to 1969 and the making of the Supreme Court case. The second act is about the controversy that continues and the chipping away of abortion access.

More than half the states now have restrictive laws that make it hard for women without resources to get a timely abortion, while advances in science lower the age of fetal viability, testing both sides of the abortion divide. “I try to put in everyone’s point of view,” says Loomer. “I don’t think there is a point of view you won’t hear in the play.”

In one conversation, a woman asks about a fetus in its earliest development, “Is it life?” Told it’s potential life, she says, “Don’t give me the law, give me the truth.”

Whose truth? That is the dilemma Roe has us confront. And it is more relevant today than it was 44 years ago.