‘Roe’ explores Roe v. Wade abortion case at Arena Stage

April 17, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Roe' at Arena Stage (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — This Sunday marks the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wadethe landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

Now, the historic case is explored in the new Arena Stage play “Roe,” running now through Feb. 19.

“It will surprise you,” actress Sarah Jane Agnew told WTOP. “The story of the people surrounding this case is surprising and it takes a lot of turns. … It’s just undergone so many changes on the state level, and the fact that we’re here 44 years later and it’s still so fragile, it’s really something.”

Written by Lisa Loomer and commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “Roe” follows young lawyer Sarah Weddington (Agnew), who argues before the Supreme Court, and her plaintiff Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner), a single woman dubbed “Jane Roe” seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy.

“The play is an imagined interaction between Sarah Weddington and Norma McCorvey, who of course did meet and interact very much, but this play posits: ‘What if we put them in the arena together now to hash things out?'” actress Sara Bruner told WTOP. “What we have is a play that spans over 40 years. It starts a few years before the case is actually argued and takes us up to present day.”

It’s no easy task spanning 40 years in roughly two hours on stage, but director Bill Rauch handles the challenge by having cast members play multiple roles, rapidly changing costumes on stage mid-show.

“The way the play is directed is that it’s hyper-theatrical,” Agnew said. “We’re aging right in front of the audience. We have this awesome stage crew that literally comes out and helps us with changes, whether it be a wig or a costume … The set is somewhat abstracted. … It’s a pretty clean and open space, but because we cover so much time and distance, there’s not a lot of space for realism.”

“It’s fun to watch,” Bruner added. “You see these ’80s hairdos and these costumes, then the ’70s and the ’90s, so there’s a real folly to the piece — oddly enough, attached to such a heavy issue.”

Beyond the rapid pace and visual flurry, the real driving force is the pair of vastly different heroines.

On the one hand, we have Weddington, the hungry, young lawyer striving to change the world.

“You learn that she was really an elevated student, at the top of her class, extremely competitive,” Agnew said. “She was in Texas … finishing up law school and this group was very invested in making sure women could have access to safe abortions. … So you have this young woman, extremely driven and intelligent, who tries this case before the Supreme Court at age 26 when she’s never tried a contested case before. Her first time in a courtroom trying a case! That in itself is hugely dramatic.”

On the other hand is McCorvey, coming from humble beginnings and trying to solve a personal crisis.

“[She] was brought up very differently from Sarah Weddington,” Bruner said. “She’s from Louisiana, grew up in Texas, and was just a hard-living, hard-drinking, partying bartender who was pregnant for a third time and simply wanted an abortion. … Norma is really just seeking an abortion for herself, she doesn’t want to have to have another child and give her child up for adoption for a third time.”

Ironically, McCorvey ultimately wound up switching her political views to oppose abortion rights.

“Not everyone knows that Norma … later in her life ends up having a major conversion and starts fighting on the other side of the issue,” Bruner said. “[Her change] happened around 1994. I don’t want to give away too many details, because it’s one of the beautiful things in the play: navigating that absolute contradiction, that 180-[degree] U-turn that she does. But it was done with conviction.”

In this way, “Roe” strives to create multidimensional characters rather than political stereotypes.

“I think that is Lisa Loomer’s intention in the piece: that every character should be approached with such intelligence, such sincerity and such authenticity that you never feel like there’s any caricature or there’s any bias,” Agnew said. “I think that’s where the play is the most successful. You could be on either side of the issue and come to this play and feel like your issue is thoughtfully presented — and you’re also asked to sit and consider the thoughtful representation of the other side you’re not on.”

Both actresses urge audiences to ditch preconceptions and experience the play for themselves.

“If you don’t want to come see the play because you might not be represented, I challenge you to come,” Bruner said. “We are standing up there for everyone. The fact is, we’re all human beings who have decided this on one end or another, so there’s a humanization that happens there that I think moves it out of being so black and white and allows the audience to live in the gray a little bit.”

Just expect an opinionated audience voicing their feelings throughout the show.

“There are reactions you hear inside the theater that I’ve never heard before,” Bruner said. “The audience is responding in a way that is completely thrilling and surprising. The degree of engagement that the play elicits is one of the things I love. People don’t just sit and behave — and I invite that.”

Regardless of where you stand, it’s best to hash it out in the public arena than on social media.

“I think a lot of us are spending a lot of time stewing politically on our own, whether on Facebook, Twitter, watching television, whatever it is,” Bruner said. “The theater is an awesome space to make something communal that is supposed to be communal. It is exciting to sit in the midst of 500 other people and watch a live performance about something that is so right in our faces right now.”

Click here for more info. Listen to the full conversation with Sarah Jane Agnew and Sara Bruner below:

April 17, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the cast of 'Roe' (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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