'Roe' At Berkeley Rep Tells The Frustratingly Real Story Behind The Landmark Abortion Case
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist
In the world of legal activism, there may be no such thing as a perfect plaintiff. But in the landmark court case that opened the door to legal abortion in the United States, the originally anonymous plaintiff at the center of it was more of an imperfect poster child for the women's movement and abortion rights than many people likely know. The woman known as Jane Roe, whose real name was Norma McCorvey, died last month at the age of 69, and in her life she never actually had an abortion that we know of. But the story of how she tried to get one, legally or illegally, and ended up becoming the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade constitutes the first act of Lisa Loomer's new play Roe, currently playing at Berkeley Rep.
The play also tells some of the personal story of Sarah Weddington (played here by Sarah Jane Agnew), the young lawyer who took on the case fresh out of law school and ended up arguing it before the Supreme Court when she was just 26 years old. Weddington would later become a high-ranking staffer in the Carter White House and later, a law professor, but when the play begins she is just an unemployed lawyer with almost no court experience who gets drafted by a women's group in Austin to help find a plaintiff seeking an abortion, and to sue a public official. That official ends up being Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, and the plaintiff they find is McCorvey (played with plenty of petulance by Sara Bruner), then a 21-year-old out lesbian on her third pregnancy. Over beers and pizza at a pizza parlor one night, Weddington, her colleague Linda Coffee, and McCorvey agree to take their case to court, and as Loomer's play describes, Weddington and McCorvey agreed on very little else from that day forward.
Drawing on books that each woman wrote, as well as television interviews with McCorvey after she "came out" as Jane Roe in the 1980's, Roe delves into the very messy aftermath of the court case, which would continue to face legal challenges and have its scope limited by various other cases up to the present day. McCorvey was no stranger to drugs and alcohol, and would be found living in a city park just as this case was headed to the Supreme Court, and she would grow to feel deeply resentful of being a pawn in Weddington's larger project, ultimately deciding, at least briefly, to capitalize on her fame and try to profit from it, since she'd gotten nothing out of the case while remaining anonymous.
There are little details and open questions that make the story more interesting too, like whether or not McCorvey was raped prior to her 1970 pregnancy — she gave different accounts in two different books, and at some point said she only claimed to have been raped because someone told her that that was the only way to get a legal abortion, though that was not the case in Texas at the time. Also, the original lawyer who met with McCorvey and referred her to Weddington, Henry McCluskey, was gay, like McCorvey, though neither of them knew this about the other — and within a couple of years McCluskey would be murdered by a former boyfriend.
McCorvey spent years as an abortion rights activist and as an employee in a Dallas abortion clinic before ultimately renouncing all of that and becoming a born-again Christian and pro-life activist, claiming that homosexuality was a sin. Then, later, she would convert to Roman Catholicism. As her on-again off-again partner Connie (Catherine Castellanos) says in the play, "The only thing Norma consistently believed in was Norma."
Roe tells this complicated, multi-decade tale with adequate swiftness and some clever, imaginative stage direction by Bill Rauch. Though legal dramas can sometimes be dry, this is anything but, and that's perhaps aided by the unpredictable, chameleon-like Norma, who comes to embody both sides of a passionate moral and religious debate that has been central to American politics for four decades.
The set, a modular, spare and effective one by Rachel Hauck, is harmed a bit by lighting that frequently washes out a projection screen that occupies the full back wall of the stage and is meant to help indicate the setting of each scene.
But while the play is funny and diverting throughout, the frustrations of that debate, and the complications posed when a plaintiff does not lend a satisfying backstory to the legal case at hand, are at the center of it. That frustration bleeds through Loomer's script, and while it saves it from becoming a pro-choice polemic, it does little to bridge this political divide that remains very much in the news — I noted that on the day I saw the play, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was answering questions about his views on abortion rights in a congressional hearing, and today there's a story on Salon about House conservatives pushing to keep anti-abortion principles in the Trumpcare bill while two Republican women in the Senate may vote against it if it retains a provision that defunds Planned Parenthood.
The play is, no doubt, a vital primer and all the more relevant as the debate over abortion rages on. I just wish I could tell you it had a happy ending.
'Roe' plays through April 2 at Berkeley Rep. Find tickets here, and be sure to get the half-price discount if you are under the age of 30.