Performing Arts

Roe Makes the Abortion Debate Human in Houston — This Stages Production Is No Ordinary Play

This Tale of Two Real Women Is More Timely Than Ever

BY // 02.28.23
photography Melissa Taylor

In ROE, a play by Lisa Loomer running at Houston’s Stages Theater through this Sunday, March 5, a writer feels she almost needs a trigger warning to use so volatile a word. Roe has become shorthand for perhaps the most politically and emotionally charged subject in recent American history. Of course, Roe refers to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Yet few people are familiar with the two real life characters behind Roe v. Wade — Sarah Weddington, the lead lawyer who brought the case, and plaintiff Norma McCorvey, who became known to the court and America as Jane Roe. Their story is what Loomer sets out to tell, a more historical story than a political or legal one.

In many ways, ROE is also a Texas story. Two Texas women meet in a Dallas pizza shop in 1969 and agree to work together to overturn the Texas law that banned abortion except to save the life of the mother.

Although it’s a heavy subject, ROE is not a heavy play — or at least not how director Kim McKean has shaped it. She avoids allowing the main characters to lapse into polemical interpretations of fanaticism or demagoguery. Instead, McKean emphasizes their humanity and vulnerability. A brilliant touch in staging are the use of original clips from the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in the case, august-sounding male voices that would decide the future of millions of lives.

ROE was originally produced in 2016, and it is a tribute to Loomer’s quick footedness that she was able to update the script so quickly after the June 2022 Dobbs decision, which struck down Roe and turned the abortion law over to the states. To achieve this, characters break through the fourth wall — speaking directly to the audience to bring them up to date on their lives since 1973, sometimes quoting their own obituaries.

Weddington, who argued Roe at age 26, died in 2017. McCorvey died in Katy in December 2021, six months shy of seeing Roe overturned.

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Teresa Zimmerman (Norma McCorvey) and Aaron Ruiz in Stages' production of ROE (Photo by Melissa Taylor)
Teresa Zimmerman (Norma McCorvey) and Aaron Ruiz in Stages’ production of ROE (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

ROE is the story of the plaintiff and plaintiff’s lawyer before and after the groundbreaking 1973 decision that changed their lives.

Act One takes the audience through McCorvey’s troubled and delinquent childhood — a broken home, teen marriage with a baby adopted by her alcoholic mother, and a stint in a state school. We meet her in 1969 at age 22, working in a bar, a lesbian pregnant with her third child (after a second had been given up for adoption). Through a series of referrals that leaves her unsuccessful in getting the abortion she was looking for, she ultimately meets Weddington, who at the time was looking for a pregnant woman to serve as plaintiff in a case to challenge the Texas abortion law.

McCorvey becomes that plaintiff — and her life is forever changed.

In stark contrast to McCorvey, Weddington is the picture of scholastic and social success. Poised and pretty, her youth was spent as a drum major, president of her church youth fellowship, and presumably a shining example of filial rectitude. When we meet her, she’s in a smart suit, her blond hair coiffed to perfection. Despite the appearance of a cloudless past, the script implies that Weddington’s experience during law school of having to go to Mexico for an abortion in filthy surroundings may have led her to champion abortion rights.

Jane Roe’s Anti-Abortion Conversion

In a surprising turnabout, Act Two is devoted to McCorvey’s embrace of evangelical Christianity. Her conversion comes about when Pastor Flip Benham opens an office of his anti-abortion group next door to the abortion clinic where McCorvey works. Slowly, through kindness and sharing the story of his personal salvation, he convinces McCorvey to attend church with him.

There, she finds the fellowship and purpose she’s been lacking. The most poignant moment in the play comes when she tells a stricken Connie Gonzalez, her partner of 24 years, that she’s going to be baptized. Gonzalez understands it will end their same-sex relationship. With that and McCorvey’s forthcoming baptismal immersion in a Dallas swimming pool, their relationship is severed.

The rest of the action is devoted to the eventual rupture between McCorvey and Weddington with their competing books and differing narratives. McCorvey’s shifting accounts of her past are supposedly inspired by how much money she stood to gain — most of it provided by the media looking for a story.

The last scene, a boisterous Town Hall meeting, finally allows each side of the abortion issue to make its case. This includes an Evangelical pastor character making a moving plea for the unborn.

Then, alone on a darkened stage with a spotlight on her, Weddington delivers an impassioned explanation of her efforts. It was not about babies, she explains, but to empower women for the first time in history to have control over their own bodies and destinies when it comes to reproduction. That was what came out of it, she says: To give women a choice.

Lights down and out.

Aaron Ruiz and Kelley Peters (Sarah Weddington) argue in Stages production of ROE (Photo by Melissa Taylor)
Aaron Ruiz and Kelley Peters (Sarah Weddington) argue in Stages production of ROE (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

Breaking Down Roe, The Play

— Teresa Zimmermann (Norma McCorvey) gives a masterful, sustained tour de force of a performance, showing her character’s mercurial personality, her frailty, nastiness, neediness and loneliness.

— Kelley Peters (Sarah Weddington) is outstanding in her nuanced portrayal of the Southern gentlewoman her appearance suggests, but who is also in reality a proverbial steel magnolia determined to prevail. Her acting demonstrates power and the skill not to shrink in Zimmerman’s formidable shadow.

— Foster Davis (Pastor Flip Benham) has nailed his character. He gives a realistic depiction of the subtlety and patience that is part of the best aspect of pastoral care, as if he’s inviting a feral cat into a warm house, bit by bit.

— Briana J. Resa (Connie Gonzales) strikes just the right tone as McCorvey’s sympathetic, devoted longterm partner,

Kudos should also go to Elaine Robinson (Mary). Excellent in six different roles, she is memorable as McCorvey’s boozy mother, a Cruella with a whiskey glass in her hand.

And a shoutout to Houston-based costume designer Macy Lyne who successfully covers both the wild-child hippie and the dress for success business looks with shoulder pads of the 1970s.

A Play That Lingers

Among the moments of pathos in the play (different from the anger often associated with the topic of abortion) is McCorvey’s emotional cry recounting her obituary. “I died of a broken heart!” she cries. The reason she gives is that the country never cared about her “as a person.” ROE gives us the chance to think about her as a person now and what harshness, neglect and poverty can do to a child that a lifetime is not long enough to heal.

The theme for this year’s March celebration of Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” Playwright Lisa Loomer is one of those women to celebrate, for when she tells Norma’s story or Sarah’s or Connie’s or Mary’s, she is also telling ours, bound up as we are in our common humanity.

ROE runs through Sunday, March 5 at Stages Theater at 800 Rosine Street. For tickets and more information, go here.

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