BWW Review: Lisa Loomer's Powerful ROE Tackles the Abortion Issue from All Sides at the Asolo Theatre
When I told people that I was seeing Lisa Loomer's ROE at the Asolo Theatre, they gave me sympathetic looks as if I had told them that I was going to get a root canal, or pay a rather steep parking ticket, or sit through a slew of torturous Stanley Kramer message movies. They didn't seem like they thought that I would have a good time at a play explicitly about abortion; they wished me well, slightly shrugging their shoulders, feigning smiles as if I was about to board the Titanic.
But don't they know that ROE is being produced by the Asolo, perhaps the finest theatre in all of Florida? And don't they know that ROE, although dealing with abortion and Roe v. Wade, is astonishingly entertaining and a boat load of fun? Don't they realize that this play makes history come alive and that it does the near impossible--it teaches those of us who think we know everything and makes us realize that, no, we really don't know the whole story? And that ROE deals with all sides of the abortion debate--the legal, the political, the religious, and the personal--and it doesn't really take a stand as to where our allegiance should be. That would be our choice, for lack of a better word; but first we have to choose to see such a play that has audiences talking and debating as they file out of the theatre and drive home.
In some ways, the play is a debate with itself--we see the pros and cons of both sides, and it's sad that we live in a world where there has to be "sides." The two sides of the abortion debate are so strong in our real world that I don't think anyone will be swayed by a mere play, but it sure will have you thinking about the other side.
The polar opposite positions are represented by Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who won Roe v. Wade, and Norma McCorvey, a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed lesbian who would go down in history as "Jane Roe." We watch as McCorvey slowly changes sides--and stories; she goes from pro-choice poster child to pro-life crusader.
Playing McCorvey, and giving an absolutely bravura performance, is Terri Weagant. She is able to come across as a crass, coarse, chain-smoking, cocaine-sniffing, speaks-her-mind-loudly woman, and we can't take our eyes off her. She gives the performance here that Meryl Streep wanted to give as Karen Silkwood in Silkwood. Yes, Streep is the finest actor in our life time, but she was too precise, too cautious and not spontaneous enough in this instance, that we never believed her as the rough-and-tumble Silkwood. But we sure believe Weagant as the tough-as-nails McCorvey, frighteningly so at times. It's a startling performance, and she's so electric and in the moment, that we sit on the edges of our seats, unable to know what she will do next.
As Sarah Weddington, Bri Sudia is just as strong and at times heartbreaking. Her fiery speeches near the end had much of the audience applauding in agreement. She and Weagant's McCorvey eventually square off--just as the country has done since Roe v. Wade was decided 45 years ago.
Nate Burger makes for a likable Pastor Flip. His monologue to McCorvey was very moving, very real, and we believed him, even though the pastor eventually showed his true colors as the show moved forward. The entire cast, playing a myriad of roles, really shines: Kedren Spencer, Colleen Lafeber, Tracy Michelle Arnold, David Lively, Jordan Brown, Gigi Spagnolo, Jade Turner and especially Mary Ellen Everett and Michelle Aravana. Each performer's various parts are distinct and different, and together they create a sort of carousel of characters.
The music selections walk through the last 50 years of change--from the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." There's even a clever musical theatre interlude ("Everything's Coming Up Roe"). I enjoyed the video barrage of the 1980's--Princess Di, ET, Pete Rose, Margaret Thatcher, "Miami Vice" and Ronald Reagan and his famous quote: "I've noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born."
Paul James Prendergast's music and sound design is nothing short of amazing; I especially like how they used actual audio from the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court hearing. The rearview projections by Wendall K. Harrington also work wonderfully, seamlessly. And Michelle Hart's costumes and wigs appropriately capture the various time periods.
I sometimes had an issue with the stage hands, all male, making the set changes in the bright lighting. I wish the other cast members could do that, where the show would almost be like a party, each ensemble member helping with the moving of the set pieces. When the stage hands come out donning black, the audience steps momentarily out of the show. It's not a big deal, and the set changes certainly are fluid, but it's just a suggestion.
I also noticed that Pringles were onstage during a scene set in Texas in 1971. Although Pringles were around since the late 1960's, they did not go national until the mid-1970's; before that, they were sold mainly in the Cincinnati area. So a convenience store in Texas probably wouldn't carry them prior to 1971. But I can suspend my disbelief here, because the specific anachronism is so minor and nit-picky.
As entertaining as the show is, it oftentimes delves into the Land of Preachy, which is difficult to juggle in a show about abortion. We go in knowing the subject matter, so the longwinded speeches from both sides are to be expected. But it's also rather lengthy for its own good and could be shortened by about fifteen minutes for maximum effect. But this is an issue with the playwright, not with the Asolo's stellar production.
Much of the play's success must fall on the fluid direction by Lavina Jadhwani. She has created a world where many of us have lived through but didn't know the specifics (for instance, I didn't know that the Roe v. Wade verdict was announced the same day that LBJ died). And the show, though about the abortion issue, in a way celebrates theatre itself and the joys of theatricality. It's beautifully staged. The play is strong in and of itself, but Jadhwani has made it into something more. She has turned ROE into a must-see experience.
ROE plays in the Asolo's Mertz Theatre until April 15.