In a timely and frank play about the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, makes one very brief appearance.
Because the play is about the contentious relationship between Norma McCorvey, known as Jane Roe, and her attorney Sarah Weddington as they struggle through their lives before and after the decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
The Arena Stage’s production of “Roe,” which opened Jan. 12, spans 40 years and was written off books by McCorvey (played by Sara Bruner) and Weddington (played by Sarah Jane Agnew) and their sometimes differing accounts of history.
At separate points, a character in the play stops and points out a discrepancy in either of the books — often in McCorvey’s — and most of the time it’s Linda Coffee, the other original lawyer in the case (played by Susan Lynskey).
For instance, one book said McCorvey, a young hippie from Texas, was just over two months pregnant and the other said it was four months.
The play holds nothing back, including language, details of the abortion, sex and gender issues, and McCorvey’s lifestyle at the time — drugs, alcoholism, homelessness, dishonesty, and promiscuity.
But her relationship with her mother and girlfriend are center stage.
During the Supreme Court scene, the justices’ responses to Weddington and Wade’s arguments were played from a recording. When Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s decision was announced, the play’s audience cheered as he spoke of his wife and daughter influencing his conclusion.
The attendees at the Arena Stage were involved and responsive throughout the evening.
The play also depicts McCorvey first telling Weddington and Coffee she was gang-raped, and later taking that back. And, the first act closes with the introduction of the man who would ultimately make McCorvey take everything back.
Evangelical minister Flip Benham (played by Jim Abele) sets up an Operation Rescue clinic next to the abortion clinic where McCorvey and her girlfriend work the front desk.
He, ultimately, with others from his church including a young girl, convinces McCorvey to be baptized, leave her girlfriend, and abandon being an advocate for abortion rights.
As such events are happening, Weddington is onstage to question McCorvey’s new opinions, adding her own two cents on her former client’s life decisions and engaging the audience.
The play then sets up an imaginary 1996 town hall debate between the two women, to assume what would happen if they met again.
In that instance (to avoid spoilers), the dialogue reminds the audience of the abortion conversation of today. They use actors to voice both sides in a very authentic and uncomfortably successful way.
The play’s decision to focus on the two women behind the abortion law is not only a way to show that Roe vs. Wade is about women’s rights, but also a way to illustrate the complexity of the issue. And the two women’s complex relationship.
Weddington felt Roe v. Wade was about more than one person, which McCorvey thought robbed her of the attention she deserved as the plaintiff in the case.
“Roe” gives life to two people whose names have been imprinted on history for so long that their personalities have been lost.
The play runs through Feb. 19 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater (1101 Sixth St. SW).