Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Los Altos Stage Company is presenting Lisa Loomer's 2016 Roe, a play that is sweeping in time and scope. Often feeling like a documentary film telling long-ago history, Roe also has the immediacy of real-time interaction with us as audience as full participants. Characters speak to us directly, and we even become part of an explosive, town-hall meeting where the two polarized sides collide with shouted, passionate arguments. Lisa Loomer does not sway her play to either side of this highly divisive issue, presenting both sides with divergent voices that are surprisingly and equally human, credible, and even likeable.
As the key protagonists, Norma McCorvey (or as we know her, "Jane Roe") and Sarah Weddington reveal as plaintiff and arguing attorney their own histories and connections with each other–the case and its decision as well as the subsequent and continued controversies and conflagrations. Their stories sometimes coincide but often collide and conflict, especially as the years mount after the decision. As we watch the drama of their lives unfold, what is fact and what is fiction sometimes depends on whose ultimate truth one buys.
Plaintiff and attorney first meet in 1971 over pizza and beer when Norma is already pregnant but not yet showing. She is looking for a safe abortion in a state (Texas) whose laws prohibit such, and where women of money go to Mexico or California for such a procedure. Poor women like Norma use coat hangers, pencils, Lysol, or vacuum cleaners (and are often raped before one of those or even worse methods is used on her by a so-called doctor). Sarah Weddington and her feminist side-kick friend, Linda Coffee, are looking for a woman to serve as plaintiff–someone to remain anonymous, to be identified as Jane Roe, and to give this 26-year-old attorney who has never tried a case in court the ammunition she needs to bring suit to the Texas courts and eventually the Supreme Court. And thus begins an initially cautious but mutually beneficial relationship that later turns rocky and ultimately becomes adversarial as Jane Roe the person and Jane Roe the case clash in terms of needs and goals.
Reluctant at first to accept the lead role seeking bold, sweeping national and societal change, we watch Kelly Hudson's Texas-drawling, straight-shooting Sarah gain strength of conviction and courage up to the point that she finally says to the Court, "We are here to argue a decision that the woman has a constitutional choice to make herself." Continual evolution of her forcefulness as a lifelong crusader to protect that right is embedded in the fortress-like character Kelly Hudson so believably portrays. We also witness the antagonism and eventual rivalry that develops over the years between her and her initial key to success, Jane Roe.
As Norma McCorvey ("Jane Roe"), Heather Skelley is a tightly wound ball of anger, regret and injury whose rocky upbringing has been shaped by a mother who called her "Ugly Stupid" instead of Norma and who took control of Norma's baby from her first of three unwed pregnancies, never letting her again see the daughter. Kimberly Roberts plays Norma's mother with such biting viciousness to send shudders down one's spine.
But this same Norma is also one who, in her Southern Creole/Texas drawl, wryly and with some twinkle in her eye, continuously spits out lines like "I am so poor I can't afford to pay attention" or "Butter my butt and call me a biscuit." Prone to drinking booze and smoking weed (but she reminds us, "This was the '70s, after all") and later sniffing cocaine ("This was the '80s, after all"), Norma's post-decision life proceeds in anonymity and somewhat quiet bliss as she moves in with a Mexican-American lover, Connie (played with big heart, much patience, and a willingness to forgive by Vanessa Alvarez). Anonymous, that is, until Reagan is elected and the pro-choice world becomes concerned that Roe v. Wade needs a face on Roe to help counter the rising tide to overturn the decade-old decision.
Suddenly, Norma is no longer just an unknown part of a controversial court-case title. She is yanked from the cleaning business she co-owns with Connie and put into the nation's spotlight by Sarah and the now legions of pro-choice supporters. Heather Skelley effectively shifts Norma's persona as she steps in front of national TV cameras and begins a series of talk show appearances. "Silence, no more ... We will not go back" is Norma and Sarah's joint mid-1980s message.
As this fascinating recounting of history unfolds, director Linda Piccone moves this cast of twelve through shifting roles, time periods, and numerous scenes with overall clarity for us as captivated audience. Gary Landis' scenic design always maintains our attention on the marbled steps and columns of the Supreme Court–reminding us where still today the focus for Roe v. Wade lies. He and Caleb Levine (props master) utilize effectively and quickly rolled/carried-in mini-sets, stirring our memories of the '70sm '80s, and '90s. The costumes and wigs by Lisa Rozman and the recurring snippets of period music by sound designer Ken Kilen ensure we are solidly in the appropriate era as the years and decades pass before us. Particularly effective is the director's decision to use the actual recorded voices of the 1972 justices as they question both sides of the argument in the Supreme Court setting.
The 1990s and Act II bring a new set of characters as the pro-life movement gains dollars, followers, and larger-than-life personalities. Operation Rescue moves next door to the Women's Productive Center where Norma and Connie now work as volunteers. We see scenes too familiar as an Operation Rescue volunteer intercedes and convinces a weeping pregnant woman not to go into the Women's Productive Center for a much-wanted abortion.
The Rescue's dynamic, all-American-looking leader Flip Benham is persuasive, persistent, but also pleasant–with Alex Perez's Flip having a magnetic personality that is full of welcoming smiles and is surprisingly respectful to Norma as she goes to and from to work. One of his soft-speaking, genuinely friendly volunteers, Rhonda MacKey (played powerfully by Kate Lincoln), and her innocently sweet daughter Emily (Lilia Bernstein) provide more faces and voices to "the other side." In Lisa Loomer's script and approach and through the actors' individual skills, the Operation's pro-life message is presented with plausibility, sincerity, and actual love. Heather Skelley's Norma undergoes yet more big reversals of character as her stance and attitude toward abortion take a 180-degree shift, with Skelley providing a credible portrayal to help us understand how and why Norma undergoes such transformation.
In the end, it is so clear that Roe actually has no ending. The story, the next steps, and even the outcome are once again in 2022 so much up in the air and unknown. Lisa Loomer's highly unusual approach of telling this history and these personal stories, in which no one is totally righteous and no one is totally a villain, cannot help but cause audience members to leave with new perspectives. Everyday humor and kindness are intertwined with expressions of hate and stories of horror. Words now recorded in books are mixed with side comments and winks to the audience. The mostly now-deceased people appear in real time before us, and everything and everybody feels in many ways right now, right here in America. Los Altos Stage Company's Roe is important for all of us who think we already know all we need to know about which side we stand on Roe v. Wade.
Roe runs through March 13, 2022, at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. Along with onsite, live performances, streaming of the March 11, 12, and 13 performances will be available via the Broadway on Demand platform. For tickets and information regarding the live performances, please visit https://losaltosstage.org; for streamed performances, please visit at BroadwayonDemand.com.