Catherine Castellanos (Connie Gonzalez), left, and Sara Bruner (Norma McCorvey) in Roe at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Jenny Graham

Since its Supreme Court ruling in 1973, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States, has been a lightning rod that continues to electrify public opinion. It serves as a seismograph that registers politicians’ and citizens’ viewpoints, very few of whom are undecided about how women should make their pregnancy choices.

Turning constitutional litigation into a fascinating and sometimes humorous human story, notable playwright Lisa Loomer traces the history of Roe v. Wade from just before the first 1970 meeting in Texas among three women in their 20s, Norma McCorvey, the named plaintiff known as Jane Roe, and her attorneys, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. Roe ends, with a bit of late re-writing, at McCorvey’s recent death on February 18, 2017.

Norma McCorvey (excellent Sara Bruner) is presented as a bit of a wild child who had already given birth to two children, but was raising neither, who abused drugs and alcohol, was gay, and whose mother was a nasty piece of work. But Norma McCorvey was pregnant again, and that was all that mattered to attorneys Sarah Weddington (first-rate Sarah Jane Agnew, Don Juan Giovanni) and Linda Coffee, who dropped out of the picture early (well-acted by Susan Lynskey). The lawyers were itching to test Texas’s onerous anti-abortion law, which criminalized doctors who performed abortions, regardless of the health or life of the mother.

The action of the play follows the chronology of the lawsuit, and then, the continuing lives of McCorvey and Weddington. The first act contains a dramatic re-enactment of the Supreme Court hearings (there were actually two), with recordings of the justices questioning the litigators. Weddington, at 27, was then, and remains today, the youngest person to argue successfully before the high court.

The production also portrays the unfortunate misunderstandings and misconceptions that pervaded the relationship between McCorvey and Weddington. McCorvey initially thought that bringing the case would help end her pregnancy, but of course, litigation that winds its way to the Supreme Court often take years to be resolved. And although Weddington knew of a “safe” abortionist in Mexico, she never shared that information with McCorvey. Weddington related to her as a vehicle to help the cause, not as a person in need.

After the Roe v. Wade decision, McCorvey spent many quiet years working in pro-choice health clinics with her sympathetic live-in partner, Connie (skillfully acted by Catherine Castellanos). In a dramatic turnaround, Operation Rescue, the virulent anti-abortion organization, moved in next door to McCorvey’s clinic. They proselytized and finally converted her. McCorvey became an outspoken opponent of abortion rights.

Director Bill Rauch (Broadway’s All the Way) has succeeded in making this remarkable story come alive. The staging of Roe is surprisingly theatrical for a fact-driven performance piece. The stage is often divided into two sets, which enables the audience to watch two different activities simultaneously. So for example, the audience watches Connie sitting solitarily at home while Norma McCorvey is being baptized into her new faith.

Roe, originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then co-produced by Washington, DC’s Arena Stage and our own Berkeley Rep, was thoroughly researched by playwright Loomer, who read Weddington’s book and McCorvey’s two books on the subject. Excerpts from these books effectively illustrate the differences in their recollection of key facts. Occasionally, breaks in the fourth wall are thoughtfully employed to add detail and give updates on minor characters, as though in a footnote.

Roe is an enthralling drama about the personalities behind the life-changing momentous decision, in addition to being an engaging exploration of the litigation itself and the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements. It’s an important story in a very well-presented and performed play that all should see.

Roe runs through April 7. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...