Review: ZACH'S ROE Wows With a Timely Message

ZACH’S ROE Wows With a Timely Message

By: Apr. 18, 2023
Review: ZACH'S ROE Wows With a Timely Message
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Covering ground in the history of the Roe v. Wade case and the ongoing contentious debate about abortion in the United States from 1974 to, well... right now, playwright Lisa Loomer's ROE strikes a strong and powerful chord. ROE is an obviously timely play, and it is a courageous company that chooses to produce it in the very heart of where it all began. To coin a phrase from another recent piece of theatre based in history, someone in the audience could've been "in the room where it happened." My companion for the show wasn't in the room where it all happened, but she was in some of the rooms. As a young family lawyer who later became a judge here in Austin, she is a better judge (pun intended) in some respects, of this work than me. And so you know, she was impressed and moved.

Loomer wrote ROE prior to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, though she updated the script that is performed at ZACH when the Supreme Court overturned the ruling. She writes Roe as a dueling memory play, if you will. Not always my favorite way to present a story in the theatre, this device works in the best ways with ROE. Here, Norma McCorvey aka Jane Roe (Amber Quick) duels with Sarah Weddington (Nisi Sturgis) to present a story to the audience that before 2022, may have seemed retrospective. In 2023, this subject is much more impassioned, no matter on which side you land. Loomer spent a year residency at UT Austin exhaustingly researching this subject, working with people from both sides. She read Weddington and McCorvey's books, and could see a bent in McCorvey's story she says was, "so amazing... so... inherently theatrical... (it) gave me all the perspectives in one play. I didn't have to manipulate it." She's right. The story requires no fabrication in service to drama.

Loomer's work is witty here just as in her other works, including the quite clever feminist perspective of THE WAITING ROOM. Nonetheless, if we think this play will give us an accurate telling of history, Weddington and McCorvey themselves warn us right away this will not be so. Memory and history are not always compatible, and this realization informs some of the play's more tender moments. Additionally, characters break the action to tell us about their own obituaries or touch on other aspects of marginalization that intersect and inform our understanding of the Roe v. Wade story. The Women's Movement itself takes up space as the play gets rolling with a hilarious scene involving a group of women who are attempting to execute an exercise from the then new book, "Our Bodies Ourselves."

From start to finish, this production, directed by Jenny Lavery, is slick and near perfect. A simple stage is set with larger than life projections reflecting the larger than life story of two women, one who never got to have the abortion she claimed she wanted, and another, whose life was changed as the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court at age 27 in 1973.

Playwright Loomer names her characters Woman or Man 1, 2, and so on. This makes for some juicy multiple roles available to each actor. Woman 1 and 2 though, belong exclusively to Nisi Sturgis as Weddington and Amber Quick as McCorvey. From my knowledgeable companion about Sturgis's performance: "She's got her down." Sturgis gets a strong first word in as Weddington tells her story in the first act. She tees us up perfectly for an experience through the arc of time, and as we land on the other side of Weddington's Supreme Court win, Quick's McCorvey commands the stage for an intimate chapter we rarely see. We learn here how the system uses a plaintiff for their own means, and the real life "heroes" on whom we might project our own virtuous ideals come up short in real life. As the drug addicted lesbian McCorvey, Quick walks a delicate line between evoking in us an unrealistic pathos and annoying rejection of a less than charming figure. Sandra Valls serves as a perfect Connie, McCorvey's longtime rock of a girlfriend throughout her journey from Jane Roe to pro-life advocate. In Connie we see the intersectionality of class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Playing Man One, Jeff Mills takes on Operation Save America leader Flip Benham. Loomer has safely written Benham as an approachable and well meaning man, with little reference to his polarizing and arguably un-Christian public behavior toward a number of marginalized groups. Perhaps this is a helpful way to give those who are pro-choice a chance to consider his point of view. Mills takes Benham from a gracious neighbor and friend to a zealous pro-life preacher with strong believability. ROE comes to a rousing if inconclusive climax that includes the rest of this wonderful cast comprised of Amy Downing, Lara Wright, Michelle Alexander, Elise Ogden, Whitney Abraham, Cliff Miller, David Kroll, and a notably professional Riley Richichi.

Tech for this show, made up of a mostly female artistic team (YAS!) is outstanding - in particular, Stephanie Busing's projection design (well done!) Rachel Atkinson's lighting (perfect!) Jenny Hann-Chambers costuming (a hilarious costume change takes us wonderfully through time!) and Phillip Owen and Eliot Haynes sound design (Oye! Oye!) I hope to see more of this parity for artistic crews from all our theatre companies in the future.

From the responses of the audience the night we attended, it seemed clear this group leaned toward a woman's right to choose. I am curious how this piece would land for a mostly pro-life audience. Would ROE be as openly received in say, the Midwest or Florida? I'm an admittedly hopeless optimist. Perhaps plays such as this can open a worthwhile civil dialogue between those with differing perspectives. And, as a native Austinite who has lived through the arc of Roe v. Wade from its beginnings to our current situation, this show holds an added layer of meaning. ROE as produced in Austin, is a rare opportunity to be among those who experienced these historical events. Go see it while you can. You'll almost be "in the room where it happened." I insist.


Written by Lisa Loomer

Directed by Jenny Lavery

April 5-30, 2023

The Topfer at ZACH

202 South Lamar, Austin, TX, 78704

Tickets: ZACH's box office - 512-476-0541 x1, or