The history of “Roe v. Wade” is messy and unwieldy, so it’s appropriate that “Roe” is a messy, unwieldy play.
The mess begins with two Texans who are literally battling to convince us they’re the protagonist: Norma McCorvey (Tracey Maloney), the pseudonymous Jane Roe, and Sarah Weddington (Laura Zabel), her attorney. “Roe” stretches from 1969 to the present. It puts actor Dame-Jasmine Hughes in so many different wigs, as so many different characters, that I lost count. And it can be a wrenching tragedy at one moment, a postmodern deconstruction of theater the next. (“I’ll leave now because this will be the high point of my life,” one character tells us. “According to Wikipedia.”) Then comes a gut-busting comedy and a musical (yes, the cast does sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roe”).
Playwright Lisa Loomer knows this is a difficult story to get a handle on — one of the first lines is “It’s really hard to talk objectively about the truth” — so she doesn’t try. She honors the complicated, confounding history of one of this country’s most contentious rulings by hinting at the dimensions of its complicated confoundingness and, ultimately, leaving the audience to make sense of it ourselves. One big question of the antic and surprisingly funny play (and of our times, for that matter) is: Whose story is this to tell? And there’s an appealing modesty to the way Loomer creates the illusion of letting the characters take over, as if the playwright’s answer is: “I’m not sure, but it definitely isn’t mine.”
Maloney makes an excellent case that it’s Roe’s. Uneducated but not dumb, Maloney’s McCorvey is a lost soul who tells us she was tricked by Weddington. She tries on a variety of personas — celebrity, feminist, Christian — in her struggle to figure out who she is. As various outside forces swat McCorvey back and forth like a pingpong ball — not unlike the title character in the similarly themed satire “Citizen Ruth” — maybe the biggest tragedy of “Roe” is that McCorvey never figures it out.
On the other hand, as the play’s final moments remind us, “Roe v. Wade” remains the law of the land and that’s in large part due to Weddington. The character benefits from Zabel’s warmth and compassion, which balance out the fact that the attorney seems to have cared about McCorvey the plaintiff but not McCorvey the person.
There are dozens of characters in “Roe,” and director Mark Valdez does allow some of the shorthand performances to come off as too broad. But there’s real generosity in the way Loomer takes care to find the humanity in, for instance, an anti-abortion activist who is beautifully played by Bonni Allen. As they get caught up in events bigger than them, it’s not always clear the play’s characters care for each other. But there’s a strong sense that Loomer is pro-life in this sense: She cares about every single one of them.