Performing Arts: From Supreme Court to Stage

Playwright brings the story of Roe v. Wade to Arena Stage.

Amy Newman and Sara Brunner in “Roe” (Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

For better or worse, Arena Stage planned the premiere of “Roe” to coincide with the 2017 presidential inauguration. Lisa Loomer’s play tells the story of the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, with focus on the two women at the center of the case, plaintiff Norma McCorvey and lawyer Sarah Weddington. The play was originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle, inspired by moments of great change in American history.

Washington Life: Are you looking forward to being in Washington around inauguration time?
Lisa Loomer: As a dramatist, I cannot imagine a more dramatic moment. As a citizen, I want to be in the thick of it.

WL: Did you have any idea when you were writing this that abortion rights would be so challenged this year?
LL: I didn’t anticipate that they would change so quickly, so rapidly. This play will play very differently with Trump being inaugurated than if Hillary had been our president. It will play with a timeliness, and an urgency, that I could not have imagined.

WL: Reviews often mention the humor in your work. Does humor come naturally to you, and do you use it as a vehicle to broach difficult subjects, show absurdity or for any other reason beyond entertaining?
LL: I don’t know where humor comes from … maybe from being a bit of an outsider. I swear that I don’t know if a play is funny until I hear it in front of an audience. But once I know something might be funny, I’ll use a bit of craft to ensure that. Humor opens us up, gets us out of our heads … “Roe” is a serious play, but people see it multiple times. I don’t think that would happen without the laughs.

WL: What made you decide to focus on the two women at the center of the case?
LL: At first I was reluctant to do the play, thinking it would be about a court case. But as I researched, a story emerged, a shocking turn and a conflict between the characters involved, that gave me a way of looking at the larger divide within American culture. It’s been described as a “wild ride,” so I don’t want to spoil it for you.

WL: Were you careful to give voice to different points of view?
LL: I do. It’s not a diatribe. But I think the character of the lawyer makes the case for choice very clear. But I also look at the word, “choice.” I think we make choices in all areas of our lives, and I don’t think they need to be simple and I don’t think they need to be simplified for us. Part of being a human being is wrestling with difficult, complex choices.

WL: You’ve said you’re hoping the Obamas will see the play. Would you like Donald Trump to see it?
LL: My dream is to someday sit in the middle of a truly mixed audience, in every way, including politically. Theater gives us the opportunity to sit in the dark with people we don’t know much about and may not agree with. We get to hear where they laugh, where they are shocked, where they cry. I have so many people who came to see the play who said that afterwards, they broached the subject with people they’d never have discussed it with, even if they were a family member or a lifelong friend. So yes, I’d like Trump to come, and maybe sit next to his daughters. Harry Blackmun, the justice who delivered the opinion on the case, said that his wife and daughters were a profound influence on his thinking.

“Roe” runs through Feb. 19 at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater.

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