Review: Zach Theatre’s Roe

Revised text of the abortion rights drama proves that timing is everything

Amy Downing, Nisi Sturgis, Cliff Miller, and Jeff Mills in Zach Theatre's Roe (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)

I found myself in a bar after seeing Zach Theatre's opening night performance of Lisa Loomer's Roe. The plan was to gather my thoughts about this riveting retelling of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision that guaranteed the right to an abortion. Instead, I gained perspective when the house band played a Trace Adkins song from the film Country Strong, whose titular lyric suggested that "It can happen so fast/ Or a little bit late/ Timing is everything."

Roe is a well-written historical drama that focuses on the two Texas women at the center of Roe v. Wade – the pregnant, damaged plaintiff Norma McCorvey aka "Jane Roe" (a thoroughly engaging, always interesting Amber Quick) and her gutsy young attorney Sarah Weddington (a marvelously compelling Nisi Sturgis). It chronicles their lives leading up to their first meeting, takes us into the courtroom as the lawyer pleads her case, and charts their divergent political paths after the case has concluded. And because it was written in 2016, when the option of abortion was secure, safe, and accessible, the playwright graciously takes the high road by giving both sides of the pro-life/pro-choice debate their comparable moments in the spotlight and depicting their respective players as passionate followers of their conscience and moral compass.

But this is also a memory play told by both McCorvey and Weddington, who admit that their memories are unreliable, imperfect, and often contradictory. As such, Roe is more of a creative piece of storytelling about an impactful moment in recent history than a documentary-style staging of historical facts. Characters are given the freedom to reenact their lives while offering context, commentary, and humorous asides, like what Wikipedia and their obituaries say about them in the future. It also allows the sizable ensemble – a terrific gathering of talented, highly invested actors featuring Jeff Mills. as born-again Christian pastor Flip Benham, Sandra Valls as McCorvey's lover Connie, and Amy Downing as Weddington's comic relief co-counsel – to play multiple roles.

And so Roe entertainingly addresses a very complex topic without oversimplifying it, creates relatable characters that are able to relay their politics without sounding preachy, and never comes across as didactic. Director Jenny Lavery and her designers use a perfect balance of ambient music and voiceover (Phillip Owen, Eliot Haynes), huge visual projections (Stephanie Busing), and dramatic lighting (Rachel Atkinson) to establish time and place. Period costumes (Jenny Hanna-Chambers) and a brilliantly devised and executed onstage costume change serve to transition from one decade to another. Transitions from one scene to the next are speedy and seamless entrances and exits of set-pieces and props (Michelle Ney) performed by the actors.

This play was originally slated for production at the Zach in 2020, but was canceled after three rehearsals due to COVID: Now it is being staged at a time when abortion is no longer readily accessible and all but illegal in Texas, where providing one can be a felony punishable by up to life in prison.

As such, Roe is no longer the same play. Its balanced retrospection now seems naive. And the pride the play generated among advocates of women's rights in general and Texans in particular – since it is in Dallas and Austin where much of the drama unfolds – has been replaced with a great sense of loss.

Timing is everything.

The 2016 script has since been revisited by Loomer, and in the version of the play now onstage at the Zach, there's a revised prologue and epilogue that give the first and final word to pro-choice lawyer Weddington. This rendition of Roe is more polemical as well, because in this day and age it has to be. All of this comes across as a call to action whose urgency earned applause from the opening night audience.

Come see Roe for the personal stories behind the politics and the remarkable performances. Stay for the rallying cry.

Zach Theatre's Roe

Topfer Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 512/476-0541
Through April 30
Time: 2 hrs., 20 min.

This review was edited to note that Jeff Mills plays the part of Flip Benham.

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Zach Theatre, Roe, Lisa Loomer, Amber Quick, Nisi Sturgis, Cliff Miller, Sandra Valls, Amy Downing, Jenny Lavery, Roe v. Wade, Sarah Weddington

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