Hot Button: ‘Roe’ is Part History Lesson, Part YouTube Comment Thread
Reviewing non-fiction, creative as it may be, is hard. Because there is always a line you bump up against in which the question becomes are you reviewing the presentation, or the history or the politics that are the subject of the presentation? And that’s an especially prescient question with as charged a topic as the one that is the focus of Roe, a new play showing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through October 29.
The play loosely depicts the story of Roe Vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, and has been the subject of non-stop controversy ever since.
Roe begins in Austin, Texas, with Sarah Weddington, a young lawyer that is a member of the burgeoning women’s movement, played by Sara Jane Agnew, and Norma McCorvey, pregnant woman desperate for help, played by the stellar Sarah Bruner, the magnetic star of last year’s Fingersmith, who knocks it out of the park in this piece as well.
The first act races through the case with lighting-paced scenes that serve more as a historical infodump, than a dramatic narrative. It crescendos with the SCOTUS hearing itself, in which audio from the court records is played back and acted against for wonderful effect.
The second act switches things up entirely, and delves into McCorvey’s life post-Roe, her time as a drifter, an abortion clinic counselor, and her eventual status conversion to being a spokesperson for the pro-life movement.
But predictably, as the events being depicted move towards modernity, with its hardened stances and tribal affiliations, it doesn’t take long for the play itself to descend into being the comment thread on a YouTube video, with actors shouting stale talking points at one another, which is far more uncomfortable than it is dramatic. The climax feels a bit like a game of my team/your team, especially when the audience cheers or jeers a piece of dialog, not for its witticism or insight, but for its affirmation of their pre-existing political stance.
Which feels bruising to say, because the acting is top-notch, the production hums and sparkles, and the script packages a remarkable density of material into the narrative. And when it is on, it is on.
But for me, and this is only one critic’s opinion—and a male one at that—the story elements of the story at large fell a bit flat. And herein lies the reviewers struggle mentioned at the top of the piece. The history is frustrating. Some of the characters in it undeserving of honest depiction so much as a swift kick in the nuts. And even if neutrality were the goal, it’s nearly impossible to achieve in a medium and market biased towards second wave feminist audiences because an expensive production like Roe can’t be sustained without a bit of pandering to keep seats filled. The left loves to flaunt its outrage over entertainment tropes that don’t fully embrace its values and the right loves to stay home instead of go out. That’s why the big cheer lines were all classical liberal talking points. It is the rare person that goes to a show like Roe without expectation, and the majority of those expectations are not a twisting and turning story that challenges your core beliefs with its third act reveal, but a new and improved package on a product you already planned to buy. And since the story itself is set, a product of history, any analysis of the presentation inevitably also becomes an analysis of the history it depicts as well, which is often, to be blunt, stupid and infuriating.
But maybe we need Roe the same way we needed a new production of Roots, or the continuing stream of holocaust films, not necessarily to shed new light or break new ground or tell new stories, but to keep what we all know illuminated, lest we forget the true horror. In that Roe is a huge success. It may not be a great story as a story, but it’s an important one, and for the most part, the play managed the herculean task of making the dryness of history witty and engaging.