BWW Review: ROE at Arena Stage - A Thought-Provoking Timely Examination of the Pivotal Supreme Court Case of Roe v. Wade
What a time it was to sit in the Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater on Sunday afternoon, January 22, 2017 (the actual 44th anniversary of the Roe decision). It was two days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump and one day after the huge Women's March on Washington. On our way to the theater I noticed the many hand-made signs in trash receptacles.
The theater was filled with many patrons wearing the pink "pussy-cat" knit hats commemorating President Trump's comment on the "Access Hollywood" video about women.
What a time to watch a play that deals with a woman's "right to choose" when they must deal with an unwanted pregnancy.
ROE is the eighth play developed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolution series of history plays and is co-produced by the Arena Stage and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (where it will play March 3 to April 2, 2017). Other similar shows that have come to the Arena Stage similarly were the Tony-winning ALL THE WAY and SWEAT (which is heading to Broadway). In my estimation, so will ROE. This is the East Coast premiere.
You may be a little bit hesitant to see a play that deals with a supreme court case. But, ROE is so much more. It also does not take sides. What it does do is present the facts involved with much humor. You will learn about this historical decision and learn about facts that may surprise you. I admit I was not informed about much of the fascinating back story that I do not believe is well known. I will not reveal this information to allow patrons to see and react for themselves.
Playwright Loomer and her Director Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have often worked together and this camaraderie shines in this production. Their goal is obvious - to create a well-balanced presentation of a controversial subject, its history, and without taking sides. They certainly achieve this. While "pro-choice" patrons applauded many lines, there were many "pro-life" lines that brought absolute silence.
The play opens focusing on Norma McCorvey (played by the amazing Sara Bruner) who is enjoying life in a gay bar, dancing, drinking, and having a ball in 1969 Texas. She has had two children - one lives with her alcohoic mother (Pamela Dunlap) and the other was adopted. When she finds herself pregnant the third time, she visits an attorney to help with another adoption. He then refers Norma to a young attorney Sarah Weddington who he knows was looking for a potential client to challenge the Texas law regarding abortion.
Weddington (played by the talented Sarah Jane Agnew) has an interesting background. She was only 1 of 5 females in her class at University of Texas, Austin when she enrolled in 1964. During her third and final year of law school, she became pregnant and went to Mexico and had an abortion in 1967.
Weddington, her assistant Linda Coffey (Susan Lynskey) and McCorvey met over pizza and Norma agreed to participate in the test case hoping the suit would lead to an abortion. The suit was filed in 1970. It was only four years after graduating from law school that Weddington argued before the Supreme Court at the age of 27. It has been alleged she is the youngest person to argue successfully a Supreme Court case. She added parenthetically there was no ladies' room in attorney's lounge at the Court.
I was very surprised to hear the actual questions asked by Justices Warren Burger, Potter Stewart, Byron White, and Thurgood Marshall (great sound design by Paul James Prendergast). Thanks to him the music of Janis Joplin permeates the show. Projections are used effectively by Wendall K. Harrington.
When Justice Blackmun (played by Richard Elmore) delivers the decision at the end of Act I. I had goose bumps.
While Act I was certainly a history lesson, Act II is very different. It is here where Norma begins to question how she was used by Attorney Weddington. She accuses Weddington of dealing more with the cause than her individually. She is helped to deal with this issue by her female companion played by the amazing Catherine Castellanos (playing Connie Gonzalez) who is loyal to Norma and helps her deal with the vicissitudes of life.
Norma seeking help turns to a preacher, Flip Benham (played admirably by Jeffrey King) and there is a poignant scene (again with pizza) between them.
Most all of the cast play various roles to perfection. Besides Agnew and Bruner, there is only one other actor who only has one role and that is Kenya Alexander (playing the worried young woman Roxanne) who at the end of the play expresses her real life concern about what will happen to her. She is electrifying.
Loomer breaks the "fourth wall" on numerous occasions which adds a little levity. Actors face the audience to include what happens to them in the future. For example, Weddington's husband announces they will become divorced after the decision. The funniest example is by Susan Lynskey who comments ..."this will be the high point of my life." Then she adds sardonically, "According to Wikipedia."
It is quite a site to see the actors changing clothes, wigs, and make up at the rear of the stage and you can observe the great work by the deck crew, Amanda Srok and Hannah Martin. These "quick changes" were fascinating to observe.
The playwright changed the last line of the play. Initially Weddington states "Right now, Roe still stands." After the Supreme Court found against the state of Texas regarding abortion restrictions last summer, she added "...with the Supreme Court behind us". And then after the presidential election, she then finished the line with "...as of this moment". (Thank you Washington Post writer Lori McCue.)
Many patrons may seek out some pizza after the show. I checked to see where the pizza (used in two important scenes) came from. The pizza is delivered by Pizza Iole, 1123 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, DC 20003. Phone 202-546-4653. Visit http://www.washingtonpizzaiole.com.
There are Post Show Conversations with artists and staff January 25, Feb.1, and Feb. 14 (following the noon performance); January 31 following the 7:30 p.m. performance, and Feb. 16 following the 8 p.m. performance.
For tickets, call202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org. ROE continues until February 19, 2017. Do not miss it.
THIS AND THAT
You may recall Arena's successful DEAR EVAN HANSEN from last season. It is now a huge hit on Broadway and has sold out every performance since previews began in November, 2016. Pick up this week's Entertainment Weekly (January 20, 2017) for a nice spread on the show. And congratulations to composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for winning the Golden Globe for Best Song (they did the lyrics) for "LA LA Land" and for getting an Oscar nomination. I predict it will end up on Broadway.
Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography