When you want to know how accurate a biographical play or movie is, it’s normally reasonable to think you could just go read the book. In the case of Norma McCorvey, though, there are two books: I Am Roe (1994) and Won By Love (1997). They’re very different, and so was their author, who between the two titles was born again as an evangelical Christian.
Lisa Loomer could have taken McCorvey’s story as a Rashomon-like meditation on the elusiveness of truth, but in her new play, Roe, the writer is after something less abstract. Roe is about the way women like McCorvey have become contested symbols in an abortion debate that too often points to legal principles or theological dicta instead of the actual lives of women who seek to end pregnancies.
Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, Roe has been optioned for Broadway and is now at Mixed Blood Theatre in an original production. The script is sprawling, and the show, led by director Mark Valdez, is uneven, but it’s also very clear why Loomer’s resonant take on this story feels so urgent.
Taking an iconic figure—McCorvey, “Jane Roe” in the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion—Loomer brings her down off the pedestal and introduces us to a character more complex than anyone’s hero or villain.
Tracey Maloney was a natural choice to play McCorvey; she’s unfailingly sympathetic across a range from angelic to earthy. She uses all of that range in Roe, starting in a first act that champions her as the deserving client of Sarah Weddington (Laura Zabel), the young attorney who takes Roe to the very summit of the U.S. court system. Zabel is superb as a resolute advocate.
Like Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Roe pulls a dramatic needle-scratch at the end of a seemingly triumphant first act: It ain’t over yet. The second act contains the play’s most challenging scenes, as a crusading minister (Michael Booth) sets out to convert “Roe” herself. Loomer gives these conversations the time they need to be convincing: Although the play as a whole is unambiguously pro-choice, the playwright honors McCorvey’s agency.
There’s much more to this ambitious play that also explores McCorvey’s relationships with several other characters, most notably her longtime romantic partner, Connie. In that role, Lisa Suarez has perhaps the play’s most powerful moment when, having supported McCorvey through so much, Connie has to draw the line at following her beloved down a homophobic path.
None of the play’s relationships come into focus as they might in a simpler script, and among the cast only priceless supporting player Bonni Allen knocks every scene out of the park, but Roe is a bracing take on a case that remains very much open.
Mixed Blood Theatre
15 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
612-338-6131; through March 31