What is truth?
It’s a hard question, for starters. When studying journalism, every so often you participate in that exercise where someone interrupts your typical, boring classroom lesson or speech, quickly yells something ridiculous and usually unintelligible, then abruptly runs out of the room. The students or attendees are asked to describe what just happened. In a classroom of 10 students, you will, regardless of how many times the exercise happens, get 10 different conflicting descriptions. (Seriously, this exercise was new and exciting to me when I was in the 5th grade… by the time I got to college it seemed quite mundane, and I’m certain they are still using it- I’m pretty certain the most recent time I saw it was when it was featured on the Brain Games documentary on Netflix.)
Roe as a script reminds me of this exercise. We see the story of the landmark case as told through the eyes of both Norma McCorvey (“Roe” in Roe vs. Wade), and Sarah Weddington (the lawyer best known for arguing the case before the Supreme Court), with some other viewpoints peppered in mostly as asides. The Generic Theater’s production does a good job of keeping the viewpoints they are presenting balanced, without tipping the audience’s predilection too far towards either woman’s version of the story. The script itself does a good job at handling the material, not pushing either a pro-life or a pro-choice viewpoint, instead, asking the audience, who are naturally going to bring their own politics, ideals, and morals to the space, to take a hard look at what is true to them, and why they stand where they stand, and what they think of the characters involved. The script does occasionally point out that the story they are telling is very much a story about white women, and although I do wish the script, being very new, had gone a little farther into the intersectionality (or lack thereof) in the culture at the time, the story is still important and valid as it stands.
Jeannette Rainey and Tony Robinson put together a strong ensemble for Roe, which is no mean feat. Finding 16 people who can come together in a room for an entire rehearsal process and calmly discuss the nuances of a topic as divisive as the right to an abortion, and then present a two act play free of bias is one of the main reasons we as artists do what we do. In this age of polarized language and thinking, with the nastiness of internet anonymity taking over civil discourse and logic as the most practiced method of “debate”, being able to present any idea with all its shades of grey is a skill that we are sorely lacking as a society, and look to art to provide.
Most of the ensemble plays multiple roles, and quite frankly, they all make it look easy. Besides Caity Brown and Kristi Meyers, who pretty much take turns carrying the show as Norma and Sarah, there are a couple of stand-outs who make Roe a delight to watch. Patricia Medrano’s main character is Connie, Norma’s lover, and her choices over the course of the show go beyond the script to bring out her story arc of their relationship as Norma’s conversion to Christianity and new friends start to get in the way of her identity and change their lives together. Though many times she is on the outskirts of the scene, she is fascinating to watch. Kathy Strouse, though she plays characters that are not necessarily likable as people, obviously did the work to portray each of them clearly and individually, with her usual brilliance. Hitting me the hardest, however, was Felicia Fields. Fields is the only other ensemble member besides the two leads to only play one character in the show. Just as the second act is slowing down its pace and starting to dissolve into the noise that you typically get lost in when attending modern debates on controversial topics or political rallies, Fields literally stops the show with her moving monologue where she asks Norma and Sarah to tell her the truth, and finds them both wanting.
Rainey and Robinson’s scenic design is simple, minimal, and effective, allowing Derrion Hawkin’s lights, though abstract, to add to the location and time where needed, and allow the actors tell the story where appropriate. Staci Muraski’s costumes (a generic base for each person with accent pieces to set time and character) seemed to work well for most of the characters, though the dress pants did appear to hinder Norma’s character a bit in the first act, seeming more appropriate in the second. A warning for anyone who attended Christian based schools in the 90s: Hawkin’s sound design incorporates some songs and soundtracks in the pre-show and intermission music that may be triggering.
I hope I have done my job in reviewing this show without inserting my own politics all up into it- with divisive topics, trust me when I say that isn’t easy to do. All in all, Roe is a good play that covers an important topic at a crucial time. The themes from the play are applicable far beyond any discussion of abortion or women’s issues, and I applaud Generic for putting forth an offering that speaks to our times. It is much easier to say that audiences want to be entertained rather than challenged, and much riskier as well. Art, in the end, is always political, and with Roe, Generic Theatre has indeed succeeded in making art.
Roe runs at the Generic Theater down under Chrysler Hall through September 15th- you can get tickets HERE.