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‘Roe’ reveals people behind famed abortion ruling

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From left, Sara Bruner plays Norma McCorvey and Sarah Jane Agnew plays Sarah Weddington in “Roe” at Berkeley Rep. (Courtesy Jenny Graham)

Most Americans have an opinion about Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. But how well do we know its namesake?

The strength of “Roe,” Lisa Loomer’s illuminating history play, is how well it lays out the issues — and how explicitly it allows its title character to tell her own story.

A co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage, the show opened in its regional premiere last weekend at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre. Directed by Oregon Shakespeare artistic director Bill Rauch, it’s a fascinating, dramatic, and often very funny trip through time.

Beginning in 1970, “Roe” focuses on Norma McCarvey, a poor, tough-as-nails lesbian bartender whose pregnancy caught the attention of Sarah Weddington, a lawyer who was looking to challenge the Texas law prohibiting abortion. Weddington made Norma into Jane Roe (to protect her anonymity) and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Each character is irrevocably changed by the experience. McCorvey, whose limited understanding of the issues turns her into an unwitting celebrity, works as an abortion counselor before repudiating her pro-choice stance and becoming a born-again Christian. Weddington, who is shocked to discover that the Supreme Court doesn’t have women’s restrooms, ascends to a top leadership position in the fight for abortion rights.

In the end, each comes away feeling used and betrayed.

Rauch’s fleet production, with accommodating sets (Rachel Hauck), period-specific costumes (Raquel Barreto), excellent lighting (Jane Cox) and sound (Paul James Prendergast), sweeps through the decades, from scenes of early feminist consciousness-raising parties and arguments from the Supreme Court case to the rise of radical anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue.

Along the way, the specific debate over abortion spirals out into questions about the rights of women, children and gays. In an especially telling scene, McCorvey’s longtime lover, Connie Gonzalez, is brutally shamed by Norma’s new Christian friends.

The 12-member cast, most playing multiple roles, is fully committed.

Sara Bruner gives plain-spoken Norma a wounded, volatile edge, and Sarah Jane Agnew is an upright, articulate Weddington.

Catherine Castellanos radiates compassion as Connie, Jim Abele invests anti-choice leader Flip Benham with authority, and Amy Newman gives a prim performance as his wife, Ronda. Pamela Dunlap is suitably repellent as Norma’s boozy mom.

The play ends on a note of uncertainty, with a young woman recounting her recent struggles to secure a legal abortion. McCorvey died last month, and abortion rights have eroded. Forty-four years after the “Roe” decision, the future is anybody’s guess.

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes April 2
Tickets: $29 to $100
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org
Note: Pre- and post-show discussions are March 15-17, March 21-23 and March 29-30.

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