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New Play About 'Roe V. Wade' Is A Prism For Looking At The American Divide

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New Play About 'Roe V. Wade' Is A Prism For Looking At The American Divide

Theater

New Play About 'Roe V. Wade' Is A Prism For Looking At The American Divide

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just about every American adult has heard the names Roe and Wade. Roe v. Wade was the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. Not so many people know about the real people involved, and now a new play explores their lives. "Roe" was first produced in Oregon and is now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival asked Lisa Loomer if she'd be interested in writing a play about Roe v. Wade, she was skeptical the court case would make good theater. Then she started reading about key players on both sides of the issue.

LISA LOOMER: And that for me was the story of the divide in American culture. I thought Roe was a great prism for looking at that divide about, why can't we even talk to each other about this issue?

BLAIR: She was also certain her play needed to be evenhanded.

LOOMER: Because I wanted people to feel as they watch the play that their point of view is represented, if nothing else because that helps people be more open and willing to hear another point of view.

BLAIR: The real Jane Roe was a hard living hippie-ish (ph) 22-year-old named Norma McCorvey. In 1969, she was poor and pregnant for a third time. She's played by actress Sarah Bruner. Here, she pleads with her doctor to give her an abortion. She tells him she tried to get it done illegally at a place she'd heard about.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROE")

SARAH BRUNER: (As Norma McCorvey) It looked like a ghost town, like somebody had moved out of there real fast. There's blood all over the floors, roaches, sheets like filthy rags, and the smell was...

RICHARD ELMORE: (As Doctor) Yeah. I do understand your predicament, Norma, but maybe you should have thought about consequences before you got pregnant for a third time.

BLAIR: Sarah Weddington was the daughter of a Methodist minister. As it happened, she already knew a lot about abortion. She'd had one in Mexico, something she didn't reveal until years later. She and another attorney challenged the state law on behalf of all Texas women seeking an abortion. Weddington is played by Sarah Jane Agnew.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROE")

SARAH JANE AGNEW: (As Sarah Weddington) In the absence of legal, medically safe abortions, women often resort to illegal abortions, which carries risks of death, severe infection and permanent sterility.

BLAIR: The lawyers for the state included Dallas district attorney Henry Wade - the Wade in Roe v. Wade - and attorney Jay Floyd played by Jim Abele.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROE")

JIM ABELE: (As Jay Floyd) I think she makes her choice prior to the time she becomes pregnant. That is the time of her choice.

BLAIR: The case was argued before the Supreme Court in 1971. Here, Lisa Loomer uses actual recordings from the appeal. The actors, playing the lawyers, make their arguments facing the audience. From the back of the theater, you hear the voices of the real justices responding. Here's Justice Potter Stewart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POTTER STEWART: How should that question be decided? Is it a legal question, a constitutional question, a medical question, a philosophical question, a religious question, or what is it?

BLAIR: In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jane Roe, too late for Norma McCorvey to get an abortion. But the play doesn't stop there, it goes on to explore the fierce battles that ensued. There's the anti-abortion rights organization Operation Rescue. Actress Amy Newman plays Ronda, an activist who tries to talk a woman out of getting an abortion. Ronda explains that when she got pregnant with her daughter, her fiance wanted her to get one.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROE")

AMY NEWMAN: (As Ronda) I was in my doctor's office and I happened to see a picture in one of those pamphlets they give you. I saw the precious little hands and feet. And, no, I may not be a scientist or a medical person, but I have eyes just like you do, and no one - no one - could tell me that this was a fetus and not a human being.

BLAIR: There's not enough time here to explain all of the complexities and nuance in the play "Roe." That, says Lisa Loomer, is what the theater's for.

LOOMER: I think of the theater as a place where we come together, sit together in the dark to contemplate an issue from a very, very human point of view.

BLAIR: Lawyer Sarah Weddington went on to join the Texas House of Representatives and became the first woman to serve as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She still speaks out for a woman's right to choose. Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe in the case, reversed her position and joined the anti-abortion movement. Lisa Loomer says even though "Roe" is a history play, so much of what happens in it is happening right now.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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