Sarah Weddington was a 26-year-old lawyer when she argued Roe v. Wade in 1971 and 1972. Norma McCorvey was a 22-year-old bartender when she first agreed to be the plaintiff under the pseudonym “Jane Roe,” decades before she renounced her involvement in the case and became an antiabortion advocate.
Those critical allies in what might still be the country’s most controversial legal case eventually ended up on opposite sides of the abortion dividing line. That’s where Lisa Loomer plunges in with the historically sweeping “Roe,” the rare play that takes this inflammatory American issue head-on.
“This is a way to tell a story not just about the issue, but about the cultural divide — about why we can’t even talk to each other as a country,” Loomer said by phone from her home in Ashland, Ore.
“Roe” debuted last April at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival and comes to Arena Stage on Thursday, with post-election rewrites that move the story up to the minute. A new administration means questions are afoot for the landmark case, and the Supreme Court should have a nominee for its vacant ninth chair shortly after the Jan. 20 inauguration.
To brace for the most topical play in a career that has consistently embraced current events, Loomer scrutinized the decision and brushed up on the Second Wave feminism that was ascendant as the 1960s became the ’70s. She read Weddington’s 1992 book, “A Question of Choice,” and McCorvey’s 1994 “I Am Roe.” She approached Weddington, who read the script and offered feedback, which Loomer absorbed. Loomer and Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch both say they have reached out to McCorvey, to no avail. Neither of Loomer’s central figures has seen the play.
“Norma is very much out there,” Loomer says, citing a volume of easily attained video and documentary material on McCorvey. “I felt like I spent a great deal of time with her. I would like to have had more with Sarah, but I got the sense she’s a very private person. That made it tricky for me as a dramatist, but, in the end, I respected it. It was an interesting character trait.”
“Lisa was clear from the beginning that she wanted to tell a story that gave people access no matter where they stood on abortion,” says Rauch, who directed the three-way co-production, which began in Ashland and will be seen in California at Berkeley Repertory Theatre after Arena. “It’s deeply personal, and people tend, once they’ve locked in their opinion, to be pretty locked in.”
How locked in? The actors and the OSF staff even received professional training about what to do if a protester tried to disrupt the show, a worst-case scenario that never materialized.
“The theater was concerned,” Loomer says.
Arena is prepping its staff, too: Serious dramas on the sometimes violently polarizing issue are scarce on U.S. stages. Yet Rauch says, “I do not have a moment’s hesitation that this is a story we should be telling right now. And sharing it in the nation’s capital as a new administration assumes power is very, very meaningful.”
“I knew what I was stepping into,” Loomer adds about the intensity surrounding abortion. “I don’t want to add to the polarization. I think I’ve done something radical here, in that you don’t always see two sides presented fully in one play. People like their heroes and villains — it’s easier. I didn’t want to do easy with this one. The whole issue has suffered from easy. The thing that most distresses me was people trying to make these decisions easy for us.”
The atmosphere can only have intensified in the nine months since the premiere.
“Oh, my God, yeah. It’s what’s up now,” Loomer says. “This play ran from April to October, and it’s fascinating to see how a play lives in a particular time. And now the world has changed.”
The project came to Loomer as part of OSF’s 10-year “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle,” a sweeping 37-play commissioning program that has already generated notable works such as Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ drama “All the Way,” Lynn Nottage’s working class saga “Sweat” and the semidocumentary on 1960s radical groups “Party People” by the spoken word collective Universes. (Arena has recently announced a similar 10-year, 25- play-commissioning program called “Power Plays.”) Loomer balked when Rauch mentioned the Roe v. Wade possibility, even though her work often features a political edge. “The Waiting Room” highlighted women’s medical issues; “Living Out” explored Latin workers in white households; “Homefree” detailed the crisis of teen homelessness around Ashland.
But a creative wild card often animates Loomer’s writing. Her earliest success, “The Waiting Room,” imagined an 18th-century Chinese woman, a 19th-century British woman and a modern American in the same contemporary doctor’s office.
“The ‘what-if’ of these three women was just so freaking smart and delightful,” says Rauch, who got his introduction to Loomer with that play and went on to direct that and several more Loomer scripts. (Arena staged “The Waiting Room” in 1995.)
Loomer didn’t like the idea of a courtroom drama for “Roe” but soon realized her play might take a different shape, even if it needed to stick close to history. The script includes actual audio of arguments from the Supreme Court case and has 12 actors playing multiple roles and sweeping forward through the decades, often talking directly to the audience — even arguing over the very facts they’re depicting. Loomer laughs darkly as she notes that since the play debuted, “post-fact,” a concept she had already aggressively wired into the script, became the term of the year. Her aim seems less to regurgitate the famous case than to explore the splintering people — foremost Weddington, a lifelong lawyer and defender of the Roe decision, and McCorvey, who eventually worked with the antiabortion group Operation Rescue and protested Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings.
Over the phone, Loomer is soft-spoken. “I hate talking about my personal life,” says the one-time actress, who grew up in New York and moved to Mexico with her family as a teenager. She’s married to painter and composer Joe Romano; their son, Marcello, is 19, and they live part time in New York. She has long declined to cite her age.) “As a writer, I feel if you knew me, everything about me is in the plays.”
She studied theater in college and acting as a graduate student at New York University but quickly felt stereotyped as a performer. Loomer got a small showcase at Wynn Handman’s American Place Theatre, tried stand-up comedy for a period and wrote for a performance group before finally writing her first full play in 1987.
The playwright and teacher Maria Irene Fornes was a major influence on Loomer in the 1980s, and you can hear the actress in Loomer as she impersonates Fornes’s delicate, Spanish-inflected voice. “I don’t like to go to the theater,” Loomer says slowly as Fornes, “because I watch for five minutes and it feels like it has already been chewed for me.”
“She had a radical approach,” Loomer says. “She was not big on structure but was interested in allowing people to have their voices. It’s priceless.”
Lessons in structure came from Hollywood, where Loomer penned untold pilots and worked uncredited (but paid) on films and sitcoms; her credits include “Hearts Afire” and “Girl, Interrupted.” TV and film, she says, are now “almost on the Irene Fornes bandwagon. They truly want a voice — something unusual.”
Her plays often come from anger, or something she needs to know more about. “The Waiting Room” was connected to her mother’s breast cancer. “Distracted,” on Broadway in 2009 with Cynthia Nixon, came from frustration over the rise in medicated kids diagnosed with ADHD. In 2012, Loomer’s “Café Vida” was the first in a cycle on hunger from the community-focused Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles. The play dealt with food inequality and gang members “hungry,” Loomer says, “to change. In the cast were actors and gang members trying to change their lives; there were people learning lines in their cars because they had no place to live.”
Class is a steadfast theme in her work, and it’s particularly pivotal to “Roe’s” gap between Weddington and McCorvey. Even the title speaks to the rift between her two central figures. For Weddington, it’s “law, and choice — basically, the way liberals see the issue,” Loomer says. For McCorvey, “It was about her. She was Roe.”
Roe, by Lisa Loomer. Jan. 12-Feb. 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $40-$110, subject to change. 202-488-3300 or arenastage.org.