Wednesday, August 17, 2016


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

In 1971, a young woman named Sarah Weddington argued Roe v. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Then age 26, she is still the youngest person to do such a thing.) By the time she argued the case, Norma McCorvey (known for case purposes as Jane Roe) had missed the window of time to obtain the abortion she had sought -- predictable from the outset, though perhaps not to McCorvey -- and the two women could hardly have approached the case from social locations that were more different. From the very beginning, the case meant different things to the two women, an example of the many divides of culture and privilege that have fueled and followed the landmark decision.
More than 40 years later, the 1973 decision that the two women and their collaborators obtained persists in dividing Americans more than almost any other issue. Yet we arguably have evolved not at all in our understanding of the social forces that drive the rifts between those who support and those who oppose abortion rights.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as part of its American Revolutions cycle of plays exploring significant moments in American history, saw the opportunity to open up understanding by focusing on the remarkable stories of individuals engaged on all sides of this struggle -- beginning with McCorvey and Weddington, but not ending there. OSF commissioned playwright Lisa Loomer for the task, and she has found a way to grapple with a dazzling array of complex points of view on all sides of these issues and to accord them all dignity. The resulting production, beautifully directed by Bill Rauch and featuring a wise and stunning cast, plays in Ashland through the end of October.
The production is well-oriented to its times and places, beginning with Weddington's circle of second-wave feminist friends exploring "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and beginning to think strategically about how to advance issues of concern to women, concerns that men would never pursue. The play devotes some time to the social context in which Roe v. Wade arose, and the women leaders who drove it, many of whom, like Weddington, were just finding their voices in legal and political arenas that were hostile to women. The few women who had a shot at framing such efforts tended to be white and relatively privileged -- but they experienced such virulent marginalization that they did not consider themselves privileged, and often did not have much awareness of how burdens on reproductive rights might be experienced by women of color or other women who experienced more economic and educational disadvantages.
Of course, the case was decided by an all-male Supreme Court unaccustomed to addressing the dilemmas faced by women across the spectrum of relative privilege. Though not, strictly speaking, a courtroom drama, the play cannily stages a bit of Weddington's Supreme Court experience with recordings of the actual justices' questions, giving a flavor of how the decision came to be framed in a way that was subtly focused on the concerns of doctors and their medical judgments rather than the concerns and rights of women.
The play devotes equal time to McCorvey's interesting and circuitous story. A lesbian who sought an abortion when she was poor and lacking either a partner or family support, McCorvey was a survivor of trauma in her childhood and early adulthood. Though not well-educated, McCorvey displays a certain canny scrappiness that, at times, seems quite admirable; at other times, she seems a good example of the long-term effects of trauma and marginalization.
Both women are realized on stage with compassion and depth. Sara Bruner captures the ways in which McCorvey masks her suffering with bravado and can sometimes be blind toward her own and others' manipulations. The world has taught her one must grab for things, making her an easy target for people on all sides of the controversy surrounding abortion. Having met Weddington and heard her speak, I think Sarah Jane Agnew likewise has perfectly captured a mixture of strong will and reserve and a certain primness that characterizes Weddington and that makes sense given her social location. Where Weddington is poised and controlled, McCorvey is opportunistic and, though she can be rough around the edges, sometimes catches things that others miss. It is a mark of the skill of the writing and directing and acting on display that both women are portrayed with sympathy, even while we get a sense of their flaws and the limits of their perspectives.
The same is true for the rest of the cast, all of whom take on multiple roles. Particularly notable are Catherine Castellanos as McCorvey's steadfast longtime partner, a Latina who loves and adapts to McCorvey's many efforts to reinvent herself, and Jeffrey King, who invests a pastor prominent in Operation Rescue with believable conviction and dignity. Unlike so many conversations about abortion, this play proceeds with good awareness of the experiences of women of color, investing their particular concerns with significance, mindful of how rarely those concerns are reflected in conversations on either side of the issues.
The result is a masterwork of theater which keeps you riveted as it skillfully shifts, shifts, and shifts perspectives again and again throughout its two-and-a-half hour running time. For those of us who lived through these events, the play puts the pieces of memory together with illuminating angles on these stories, deepening your understanding of things you thought you already understood. And for younger audience members, this play offers context for understanding the historical and present-day stakes, awakening appropriate urgency and compassion.

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