I had a second look at Lisa Loomer’s “Roe” at Arena Stage last week, and I left impressed by how accurately this new abortion rights drama registers our fevered political temperature.
“Roe” digs into the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and even features real audio of the oral arguments before the Supreme Court. But it’s not a debate play exhaustively exploring its issue. It’s a history play chronicling tumultuous decades, increasingly focusing on the erratic personal life of the “Jane Roe” plaintiff Norma McCorvey (who years after the court decision affirming choice reversed field and joined pro-life Operation Rescue).
Along the way “Roe” asks a large question: how sturdy is law? How fragile, in what is the greatest democracy yet in the civilized world, is the public’s consent to be governed?
Watching here and now, the question is amplified. The streets have grown louder for several years, from the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter to the current calls to “resist.” “Roe” gradually shows a resistance movement, too, from the right — and it’s worth noting how interesting it will be to hear audience reaction if and when the play, which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and closes at Arena Feb. 19 before this three-way co-production moves to Berkeley Rep, is staged by heartland theaters. By the time Loomer’s history reaches the the present tense it illustrates the steady erosion of Roe’s protections at local levels.
As the “Roe” history evolves away from the legal argument and into the court of public opinion, inevitably the left and right rise in full-throated battle cries ringing even from Arena’s balcony as the actors capture the edgy energy of street protests and noisy town halls. That’s the most rote moment in the show, but it’s also inarguably true: resistance is everywhere. Even candidate Trump, a maestro of the high-energy political rally, primed the pump for his own potential resistance movement last fall by repeatedly suggesting he might not accept unpalatable election results.
What “Roe” dramatizes most vividly is an immature society that, as the nation nears its 250th birthday, revels in contention and seems incapable of settling practically anything. Revisiting the play last week, immigration issues were major headlines, keyed by the hot-button words “wall,” “Muslim ban” and “sanctuary cities.” Considered, deliberative discussions moving toward a fulsome, fair and lasting immigration policy have long been stonewalled or drowned out.
The bulwark is the law, as we are seeing in the extraordinary first month of executive orders and judicial decisions. That is what “Roe” shows, too, with its backdrop of nine black-robed justices on the high court and its ringing final line about what exactly still stands. In the increasingly frenzied, circus-like foreground, the reflection is of a intensely fragile legal decision, and of a citizenry intractably at odds and perpetually primed for conflict.
Yes, this is an abortion play, and no issue is harder. Yet practically everything in our two-sided “take our country back” culture now sounds as inflamed, crippling the concept of “government” while hyper-activating “of the people.” You have to hand that much to Loomer: this, currently, is what democracy looks like.