Since Donald Trump’s inauguration and his appointment of two conservative judges to the Supreme Court, abortion has returned to the forefront of American conversation. Millions have marched for Roe v. Wade, whether protesting to uphold the 1973 decision or fighting to overturn it. But how familiar are we with the actual court case and the people behind it over which we’ve so vehemently fought?
This serves as the central question of Goodman Theatre’s latest production, Lisa Loomer’s Roe, a play which explores the women behind this landmark case and their oftentimes differing accounts of the experience. The text is undoubtedly timely and raises important questions about empirical truth, but varied approaches to the story’s telling diminish its overall impact. It’s an empathetic, compelling work, but one that can’t quite pack the punch it means to.
Much of this problem stems from Loomer’s commitment to - and struggle with - presenting both sides of this divisive issue. At the play’s onset, Roe v. Wade lawyer Sarah Weddington (Christina Hall) addresses the audience directly, expressing concern about the current threats to abortion rights, only to be interrupted by her one-time plaintiff Norma McCorvey, aka “Jane Roe” (Kate Middleton). McCorvey, who converted to Christiainity and renounced her decision to play a part in Roe v. Wade later in her life, has a different perspective on how she became involved in the case and its aftermath. We’ll hear, they promise, both sides of the story in the next two hours.
When this promise proves true, the play is incredibly effective. It dives deeper into McCorvey’s humanity, prompting questions about how Weddington explained (or perhaps didn’t) McCorvey’s role in this critical case and how she engaged with (or perhaps didn’t) her client after winning. McCorvey’s inconsistency is explored, showing her as someone desperately seeking acceptance and inclusion rather than dismissing her views entirely. And Middleton portrays all of this beautifully, infusing McCorvey with sincerity and earnestness.
Yet Loomer can’t seem to stop herself from caricaturing other elements. Loomer’s portrayal of McCorvey’s longtime partner Connie Gonzalez (Stephanie Diaz) lacks depth; Diaz has little but vague aphorisms to work with throughout the play. And evangelical minister Flip Benham (Ryan Kitley) is the mustache-twirling villain--a manipulative and preachy characterization.
The issue isn’t that Goodman Theatre’s Chicago-based audience doesn’t agree with Loomer’s point of view--the audible reactions throughout the play made it clear which side the majority of viewers were on. But by promising to question empirical truth and letting biases take over, the play simplifies its complexity and panders to, rather than challenges, its audience.
Outside of this unfulfilled promise, the show has some inspiring moments, and its exploration of these two ostensibly well-known women is certainly worth-seeing. To help audiences better understand what they’re fighting for and why it’s important, especially in this polarized political climate, is no small feat; the Chicago premiere of Roe gives audiences an opportunity to reflect on our shared history and its future. (Emily Schmidt)
Somewhat Recommended ★★
Roe continues at Goodman Theatre through February 23. Find more information here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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