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Lisa Loomer's 'Roe': An abortion drama that settles nothing

Lisa Loomer's 'Roe': An abortion drama that settles nothing
Sarah Jane Agnew as lawyer Sarah Weddington, left, and Sara Bruner as Norma McCorvey in "Roe" at Berkeley Rep.

It has been 44 years since the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision decriminalized abortion, but the debate has hardly been settled. The rhetoric has only grown more inflammatory, and the vitriol of activists has given way to violence.

American political life is still being held hostage over a woman's right to choose. We could use a smart abortion drama right now to release us from the ideological stalemate. Unfortunately, Lisa Loomer's "Roe" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre isn't up to the challenge.

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The problem isn't a lack of fair-mindedness. Loomer is if anything too respectful to history and too cautious toward the competing points of view. She doesn't want to editorialize, but she doesn't find a way to effectively dramatize her story.

"Roe," directed by Bill Rauch, began at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (where Rauch is the artistic director) as part of the American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle. Earnest to a fault, the play wears its commission on its sleeve.

Loomer theatricalizes the legal, historical and biographical material in a manner that can seem dutiful — the playwriting equivalent of a term paper. In making sure every side gets heard, she spreads the drama too thin. No one plot line is able to hold our attention for long. Worse, the cursorily sketched characters come off as cartoons.

The play begins by introducing us to the two Texan women who are central in the story: Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew), the brilliant, big-haired young lawyer who successfully argued "Roe," and Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner), the plaintiff who took the legal pseudonym "Jane Roe" in the case that came to define a life that was too wild, sloppy and sad to satisfy anyone's programmatic agenda.

Loomer seems to recognize from the outset that neither woman is able to serve as protagonist of her drama. Sarah is an accomplished figure, but she is viewed only from the standpoint of her professional identity. Norma, in what turns out to be the play's most bracing insight, isn't able to personally live up to the weighty public role she has been cast in.

Depicted as a flighty, hard-drinking lesbian who often seems a stranger to herself, Norma (nicknamed Pixie for her short stature) allows herself to be led by anyone who can help her. But so accustomed to being taken advantage of, she is quick to switch sides when sensing something better might be awaiting her.

Norma temporarily leaves her lover, the patient and loyal Connie Gonzalez (Catherine Castellanos), so she can accept hotshot lawyer Gloria Allred's invitation and move to California, where she'll be better able to maximize her newfound celebrity in the women's movement. After moving back to Texas, Norma finds work in an abortion clinic only to be converted by the religious protesters who treat her with a mix of fanaticism and kindness. (The real McCorvey died in February, and the play makes it seem as if her fate was to be a shifting pawn in the chess match between church and state.)

A play about a woman caught up in a drama that is too large for her limited character could be intriguing. But for Loomer the conflict between Norma and history is incidental to the abortion legal saga "Roe" broadly synopsizes.

The way a play breaks off at intermission can reveal the trouble a writer is having in locating the dramatic crux. At the end of the first act of "Roe," Norma, adjusting to the blazing spotlight after her legal victory, assures Sarah that she can handle the madness just as a man starts hollering from the side of the theater.

"Norma McCorvey, you are responsible for the death of 20 million babies, and God has sent me to stop the genocide!" he booms, before introducing himself to the audience as Flip Benham (Jim Abele), "minister of the Free Methodist Church and future head of Operation Rescue."

The scene culminates in a manner that seems more appropriate for a caption in a social studies student's diorama. Loomer likes to step back and assess the larger societal picture. (Her play "Distracted," about a child with symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, attempts to make a more widespread cultural diagnosis.)

Here, however, she doesn't get close enough to her characters to allow them to live beyond what has already been reported of them. And the abortion debate simply retreads, in goofy accents, the unending cacophonous battle.

Agnew and Bruner maintain our sympathy for their characters, whose dignity is under relentless misogynistic attack. Their roles are only sketched but the actors find moments here and there to convey what it must have felt like to perform these parts on the national stage.

Bruner's Norma hints at an embarrassed awareness that she's not up to this level of public scrutiny. The devotion of Castellanos' Connie is a compelling mystery that begins to make human sense. Norma's shortcomings are flamboyantly displayed, but so too is her vulnerability — a subject worthy of its own play.

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