By Thomas Connors
In the thought-provoking play Roe, playwright Lisa Loomer and director Vanessa Stalling give new voice to women who made history. Here, they offer some insights into the lessons that history offers.
The great Studs Terkel bemoaned the fact that we suffer from what he called “national Alzheimer’s,” a collective forgetfulness and a sometimes willful failure to ponder our past. Was your play informed at all by the recognition that we may have already forgotten the momentousness of Roe v. Wade and the true facts of the case?
LISA: Yes, absolutely! We talk about Roe, we argue about Roe, but few among us know what was actually said in the case or in the Court’s decision. So there is some history to be considered in the play and there is also much argument over what that “history” actually was. There is an ironic discussion about “truth” throughout the play that looks at how one’s “truth” is influenced by race, class, gender, religion and sexual identity. That said, you will hear some of the actual case, and you can decide for yourself what you think about it.
There is so much going on in the play−so many people, so many scenes, so many different time periods. Was there a person or a moment in this story that really started the ball rolling for you?
LISA: I was fascinated by Sarah Weddington, the lawyer, and by Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff. Sarah is clearly a heroine. She is one of the great feminists of our time. But I was also fascinated by Norma, who is the less “sympathetic” character, and by Flip Benham, the head of Operation Rescue who befriended Norma. Were his motives purely political or did he really care about her soul? But there is another character who, for me, is at the heart of this play and our cultural divide: Connie Gonzalez. There’s much talk of being a good Christian in the play and in our society. Connie [Norma’s partner] represents just that. She is non-judgmental, she is loving, she is fair. She’s not in the history books, but she exists, as do others like her, and her voice was important to me in this argument.
VANESSA: I was drawn to this piece because I’m interested in how art is addressing the divisive moment we find ourselves in and because I have a vested interest in women’s access to healthcare. I’m deeply concerned about how these wedge issues impact democracy.
The play is so much about the loaded concept of “narrative.” What is the responsibility you assume in presenting real people in what is−even as you incorporate the actual record−a narrative of your own creation?
LISA: It’s a terrible responsibility. A great deal of the play is based on actual conversations and actual events documented in both Weddington’s and McCorvey’s books. But the fact that they are onstage together arguing about history, that is my invention. Neither protagonist would be happy about it. I have tried to make clear what is theatrical convention and what actually happened. That said, I apologize to both protagonists for putting them on stage together. As an artist, I thought it was a way to look at why we cannot talk to each other as fellow Americans.
In working on the play, did you develop a deeper appreciation for one side of the argument or the other?
LISA: I gained a deeper understanding of why people are against abortion than I previously may have had. I also have a more nuanced understanding of the concept of “choice” and how it pertains to all aspects of our lives−including our religious affiliations, whom we choose as a partner and, of course, about who gets to make choices about a woman’s body. Clearly, it cannot be the government and must be the woman, herself.
VANESSA: The play affirmed for me the notion that, as long as there are people who don’t feel of value to this country and who don’t have access to power, there will always be a threat to democracy. In this play, we see Norma as a person who must operate out of self-interest because she lacks access to power and doesn’t feel valued by society. It’s understandable that she is in a vulnerable position that causes her to be persuaded by whichever “side” is making her feel of value in the moment, or as if they are fighting for her interests, even if ultimately they are not.
It’s not easy to write a piece that successfully reflects actual issues and works as fully engaging drama. How does that play out on stage?
VANESSA: Lisa provides the piece the license to be what it is: an exciting night at the theater that embraces all theatrical elements. She pulls back the curtain and asks the audience to embrace the performance, with onstage costume changes and direct addresses from the characters. This license, and Lisa’s gifted abilities for comedic timing and flow, allows for the piece to travel across significant leaps in time and space.
Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.