Review: ROE by Zach Theatre
by Michael Meigs

(photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


Four syllables, emblematic of the hard-won right of women to bodily autonomy accorded 7-2 by the Supreme Court fifty years ago. Playwright Lisa Loomer pries the cap off that four-syllable can of worms and portrays individuals involved in and invested in that 1973 result—above all, the titular "Jane Roe." Norma McCorvey was pregnant for a third time and simply wanted not to be pregnant. Recent UT Law School graduate (one of only forty women in a class of 1600) Sarah Weddington took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. McCorvey didn't get her desired abortion, but the Court accepted many of Weddington's contentions. The justices found that women had a Constitutional right to privacy and autonomy. With some limitations.


Amy Downing, Nisi Sturgis, Amber Quick (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


The events were much messier than that, of course. Loomer makes no secret of her sources, principally books written by the protagonists and others. It's no surprise there were conflicts between the two women, for their aims were fundamentally different. They didn't meet while the case dragged on and McCorvey gave birth and put the child up for adoption. The story is dramatic and so are the two principals: Amber Quick as Roe/McCorvey is a struggling, swaggering, down-on-her-luck barmaid, addict, goodtime girl and loser; Nisi Sturgis as the buttoned-down, focused Texan female lawyer is McCorvey's complete opposite. The massively talented Quick, a favorite in Austin, devours the McCorvey character. She keeps the swagger and the foul manners of a much abused woman while making the character extremely vulnerable. And Serret Jensen: with what magic makeup wands did you transform this attractive actor into such a ravaged, shopworn presence?


It's notable that the cast list does not name the characters; they feature as Woman One, Woman Two, etc., and Man One, Man Two, etc. The story, however, does give them names and identities. The supporting cast step in and out of secondary roles as needed. Jeff Mills is particularly protean as Man One. 


Cliff Miller, Amber Quick (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


The playwright's shaping of the material includes frequent, surprising meta touches. Sturgis regularly addresses the audience directly. Without breaking character, other actors quote from their characters' own obituaries. After appearing as the first legal advisor to Roe/McCorvey, Cliff Miller turns to the audience afterwards to comment that neither he nor McCorvey were aware that the other was homosexual; and he (that is, his character) was murdered by a male lover three years later. Amy Downing as Weddington's intently focused colleague Linda Coffee walks away from one dramatic scene proclaiming in disgust, "And Wikipedia said that was my high point; I never did anything as important again." (That's my approximation and may be Loomis's embroidering, for nothing similar appears in Coffee's current Wikipedia bio.)


Cliff Miller, Amber Quick (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


Michelle Ney's set design emphasizes the historic, larger-than-life importance of these events. Stephanie Busing's eye-catching video enhances their immediacy.


Nisi Sturgis (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)The first act starts with an affectionately cute presentation of early feminist consciousness raising, then presents the inherently dramatic struggle and successful achievement of the 1973 decision.The act ends with a hectoring voice of dissent from the back of the theatre. The second half takes up McCorvey's life as she encounters the stolid Connie Gonzalez (played by Sandra Valls), the woman with whom she'll have a longterm relationship. McCorvey takes a job as receptionist at an abortion clinic. A pro-life, anti-abortion group sets up shop across the parking lot, and the conflicts between the two enterprises are intended to stand for the polarized views in U.S. society. A charismatic evangelical preacher  played by Mills eventually captures McCorvey by treating her with respect, something that no one (particularly not her legal represenatives) has done. The naive McCorvey is later courted by the media and whirled away into intoxicating campaigns against Roe vs. Wade. Her fling with fame destroys her relationship with Gonzalez, especially when she declares herself anti-LGBT.


Director Jenny Lavery achieves a superbly dramatic and amusing transition from the 1970's to the 1980's at a key moment of act two. Wardrobe mistresses roll out clothes stands from either side of the stage. Grinning and  in plain view of the audience, Sturgis and Quick shed costumes and change wigs, and the dressers clothe them for the new era—while pop music thunders and a thin, comic dancer in a tight-fitting red-spangled sheath delights the audience with instantly recognizable dance moves from the 1980s. 


The conclusion of the second-act arc is all too well known to all. In fact, as Lavery points out in her program commentary, this 2016 piece was set for the Zach stage in 2020. The long standstill imposed by COVID-19 was marked last June by the conservative court's decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health essentially abrogating Roe vs. Wade. Loomer withdrew her 2019 script from sale at Dramatist Play Service and revised it; I assume that Zach Theatre is staging the updated text.


Roe is cracking good drama, a piece that presents itself as revealing the real story behind the events and depicting the depth of opposing views. It mostly does those things. Still, the story presented here, however vivid, resolves upon reflection into something of a shadow play, for it doesn't adequately address fundamentally opposed views. The closest it comes to that is an angry side conversation between Sturgis as attorney Weddington and Cliff Miller as the  attorney speaking for Texas after arguments before the court. Miller asserts hotly that abortion is murder. 


Jeff Mills (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


Playwright Loomer wins our sympathy from the earliest moments for the rational, polite, character/narrator Weddington; she cheapens the opposing camp by presenting it only through the lens of simplistic, literalist BIble-based evangelical Christianity. I found it telling that there's no meta treatment of Philip "Flip" Benham, the pastor portrayed as winning over McCorvey with gentle talk, self confession, and pizza. His meta self (if allowed) would have declared that the radical-right, anti-Islam, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ Benham, still active, is anything but gentle or law-abiding, as even a cursory Google glance will tell you. Loomer's portrait of him may have been slanted to avoid vituprative demonstrations outside theatres.


To do her subject justice, playwright Loomer would have included a character calmly and credibly arguing the philosophical reasoning for opposing abortion and acknowledging the unresolvable uncertainties of the debate. When does a collection of developing cells become a person? Under what circumstances is interruption of a pregnancy warranted? How frequently does late-term abortion become necessary? How dangerous to a pregnant person is the absolute prohibition of abortion desired by so many? Assigning the anti-Roe role exclusively to unreasoning evangelicals loads the argument in a way that Austin will embrace but Dallas-Fort Worth and other communities willl reject.


Jenny Lavery (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)To be clear: I categorically support choice for all persons and find incomprehensible the zealotry that would deprive women of autonomy over their own bodies, persons, and souls. That view was certainly shared by the great majority present at Zach's opening of Roe, as evidenced by their rapt attention and enthusiastic response.


Director Jenny Lavery, her cast, and the accomplished technical excellence of the production delivered the nourishment we've been seeking after the retrograde Dobbs decision and the proliferation of reprehensible efforts to impose authoritarian control at all levels of U.S. society.


Thanks for that. You help keep hope alive.



Click to view Zach Theatre's online program for ROE


by Lisa Loomer
Zach Theatre

April 05 - April 30, 2023
Zach Theatre
1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704

Roe will play The Topfer at ZACH Theatre, Austin, April 5–30, 2023.

Click HERE for tickets

Special Events in celebration of Roe:

  • Pride Night – Thursday, April 6, 2023
  • ASL Interpreted, Open Captioned, and Audio Described – Wednesday, April 26, 2023 at 7:30pm and Saturday, April 29, 2023 at 2:30 pm