Regional Reviews: Chicago
Vanessa Stalling directs, with Kate Middleton occupying the center of the play in an almost quantum state, as Norma McCorvey, the woman anonymized as Jane Roe to challenge anti-abortion laws in Texas. Her third pregnancy began in 1969, though the case wouldn't be decided till roughly four years later. Director Stalling keeps comedy alive, and "not alive," with Norma's clownish, self-deflecting quality, which instilled an unexpected anguish in me, for this tiny figure caught in great events. Ms. Middleton, as Norma, creates a fanciful hippie, serially abandoning her own life in a self-mocking way. Her eventual lesbian wife aptly calls her "Pixie."
But, for all her familiar wisecracking on stage, Ms. Middleton's Norma is ultimately enigmaticshe changes from hapless barfly to national symbol to women's health clinic receptionist to Bible-believing pro-life activist, all in the course of two hours and twenty minutes. Christina Hall plays her lawyer, Sarah Weddington, and they, and several other characters, speak directly to the audience about their conflicting autobiographies and Wikipedia pages, with wry consternation. The mismatched details of their unalterably linked lives add to a tangy dissonance. In Roe, each of them is in a battle with history and how it's being written and re-written.
Norma's mercurial presence and her willingness to transform herself from chapter to chapter, latching on to any new thing that comes along, becomes a fascinating survival trait in Ms. Loomer's script. Kirsten Fitzgerald is towering as Norma's sneering, tyrannical mother. And we get an odd sense from that relationship (and others) that Norma's random evolutions, and her wary inability to commit, is like some metaphysical abortion she repeatedly performs on herself, to reject any sign of personal growth. Seen in that way, through the diminutive Ms. Middleton's apologetically clownish performance (reminding us of Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina), Jane Roe becomes an unexpectedly mythic figure. Norma comes to a place of peace (and growth), when an unconditional love finally appears in the person of Connie (Stephanie Diaz). Then, in the middle of the show, Norma sabotages that too as her fame explodes across the country.
Collette Pollard's set suggests the lofty Supreme Court as a backdrop: supertitles before the show flash headlines refreshing our memories about the present-day battle over abortion; and additional projections during the show provide transcripts of primitive recordings of the questions we hear being asked by the justices themselves in two different scenes. Colorful animations and montages by projection designer Caite Hevner evoke the 1970s and the turbulent 25 years beyond. Most of lighting designer Keith Parham's equipment is stacked vertically on light trees just off-left or off-right, their gel-frames resembling the handcuffs that might have been clapped on the wrists of invisible protestors in those same decades.
The ensemble is terrific, bringing Reagan-era fundamentalism vividly to life in act two, when a preacher (the cagey actor Ryan Kitley) opens an "Operation Rescue" office next to the health clinic where Norma works. The preacher's designs on Norma are as clever as any of the more liberal activists, but once again Norma is incapable of detecting any subterfuge. Fate and freedom are maddening riddles in Roe, in the hands of a character who can appreciate neither. Maura Kidwell is excellent, gently coercing pregnant women, mixing kindness with (unseen) graphic photos to discourage abortions. A palpable chill runs through the audience as Norma makes her own flailing passage through fundamentalism.
The show doesn't overtly pander to one political side or another, but playwright Loomer and director Stalling find deep comedy in studying each group: as when that preacher's family makes frequent, un-ironic use of the word "choice" to describe their own reproductive decisions. We are also reminded of the heavy hand of society, in the gay and lesbian subplots.
Consistently, though, political repression and Norma's own self-destructiveness are countered with laughter, as when a group of Texas women attempt to discover the cervix, using Crisco, forceps, and a mirror, all on big flouncy floor pillows at a consciousness-raising session in someone's home. The sexual frankness we take for granted today blossoms in parallel with the ongoing struggle for a woman's right to choose.
Roe runs through February 23, 2020, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago IL. For more information visit www.goodmantheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association