Democracy Dies in Darkness

‘Roe’ at Arena Stage wants to challenge your views on abortion rights.

Image without a caption
Jan. 12, 2017 at 10:11 a.m. UTC

The very last line of “Roe” has changed since the play premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last April. “Right now, with the Supreme Court behind us, well, as of this moment, Roe still stands.” That’s the line right now, as of this moment.

Playwright Lisa Loomer added “with the Supreme Court behind us” last summer, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down abortion restrictions in Texas. She added “as of this moment” after the presidential election. Loomer figured the changes were necessary, considering that her play is about the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and that the political party that has long vowed to overturn that decision is coming into power.

Now, just eight days before Republican, anti-abortion President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in to office, and one week after House Speaker Paul Ryan announced plans to defund Planned Parenthood, “Roe” opens Thursday at D.C.’s Arena Stage.

“I remember thinking that our play was going to be part of Hillary Clinton’s history, that we were a part of that story with our play, showing up [in D.C.] at the same time,” says Sara Bruner, one of the two lead actresses in “Roe.” “I don’t know how it will feel doing the play now. I don’t know how people will respond.”

In the fact-based play, Bruner plays the real-life Norma McCorvey, the young, impoverished pregnant woman who sought an abortion in 1960s Texas and was given the alias “Jane Roe” in legal documents to protect her identity. Sarah Jane Agnew plays Sarah Weddington, the novice lawyer who took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that laws restricting abortion in the United States violated a woman’s right to privacy. Leading a cast of 12, McCorvey and Weddington tell the story of the trial and their relationship in the past tense, speaking as narrators in the present day.

Despite their victory, the play doesn’t end with “My Body, My Choice” signs hoisted high, or with “girl power!” on any character’s lips.

“[The play] is not pro-choice,” Agnew says. “It’s about the divisive issue of reproductive rights. And it presents both sides very respectfully. It reminds us to be compassionate and look at another side and be considerate in a room with 500 other people for two hours — two-fifteen maybe, with pauses for laughter.”

That’s the other surprising thing about “Roe” — it’s really funny. Weddington and McCorvey often address the audience directly, whining over the ways the other has changed the story to make herself look better. And at one point, Weddington introduces the audience to her husband, only to awkwardly reveal that they will be divorced shortly after Roe v. Wade is decided.

Though “Roe” ends with the women on opposite sides of the abortion issue (McCorvey converted to Christianity in the 1990s and began speaking out against the Roe decision), the play does not demonize either. Loomer, who also co-wrote the screenplay for 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted,” takes pains in the script to humanize every character, be it the pastor who leads protests against Planned Parenthood, or Weddington, who blatantly uses McCorvey as a poster child to push her interest in reproductive rights. Bruner says Loomer’s goals with “Roe” were that any member of the audience could see his or her views on abortion represented onstage and that everyone will be more understanding of others’ views because of that.

This presentation of multiple complex viewpoints “could be described as a bait and switch,” Bruner says. “The lure is, ‘Here, I’m telling your side, your story.’ And then once you gain the ear and the mind and the heart, you can start challenging that a little bit, which I think the play does really successfully.”

Bruner and Agnew are happy that no one will agree with every single line of “Roe.” “I don’t want to be telling the play to people who are just nodding their heads the whole time,” Bruner says. And though Agnew has long wished the real Weddington would attend the show, her dream guest, she admits with a laugh, is Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

“I think a lot of people won’t come to the play because it’s called ‘Roe,’ and they’ll think, ‘Oh those liberals in the theater again,’ ” Bruner says. “And that’s not what we’re doing here. You know who I want to see the play? The people who don’t want to see the play. Because they would be surprised.”

Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; Thu. through Feb 19, $40-$90.

More things to do in D.C. this weekend