Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Lisa Loomer’s starkly named new play Roe, which opened in April and runs through the season in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s indoor Bowmer Theatre, tells the story of America’s abortion wars through the eyes of two principal characters, both women.

They are Roe herself, a woman actually named Norma McCorvey, and a lawyer named Sarah Weddington who represented Roe when she wanted to have an abortion and Texas law wouldn’t allow her to have one. They were the winning side in the landmark 1970s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that gave women the right to have an abortion in this country.

Already this is beginning to sound depressingly like a history lesson, and, I have to say, much of the play, which I saw over the weekend, is a history lesson, and this is not among the play’s virtues. Directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, Roe is stilted and preachy in places, but it saves itself by telling an engaging story – definitely from today’s point of view – about the two women.

Weddington, played crisply by Sarah Jane Agnew, is a young attorney who has never argued a contested case when she is introduced to her new client. McCorvey, played by Sara Bruner, is a hard-edged 21-year-old lesbian who is pregnant, for the third time, and claiming that she was raped.

The dramatic armature of Roe grows out of the relationship between the two women, which is variously exploitative, mistrustful and antagonistic. Weddington sees McCorvey as less a human being than as necessary element for her legal battle; McCorvey, for her part, keeps changing her own account of the case and her role in it.

The play’s main strengths are its agile shifts in point of view, allowing us to examine a moment in history from rapidly shifting perspectives; characters from lawyers to Supreme Court justices talk wryly to the audience about their own obituaries — these events took place so long ago that many of the players are now dead.

The battle, though, is largely predictable, and we know from a myriad of cues which side we are to cheer for (and, in fact, the audience spent much of the performance I saw cheering like football fans for the pro-choice side of the debate).

But Loomer’s tale touches only lightly on the underlying class-war issues involved in the case. McCorvey and her subsequent friends in the pro-life movement – yes, the plaintiff actually changed sides in real life – are, in Roe, always the ones with bad haircuts and drinking problems.

As Roe wraps up, we are treated to a frightening litany of the ways in which the protections of Roe v Wade have been nullified as states have exploited exceptions in the decision. This civics lesson is as dramatically dull, though, as it is politically significant.

The action takes place on a beautiful spare set by Rachel Hauck, making good use of video projections by Wendall K. Harrington.

Roe is one of OSF’s American Revolutions series of new plays commissioned about U.S. history – the same project that brought us the Tony winning All the Way. I don’t see this one headed for Broadway, but it’s an important story, well enough told.

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