The Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance presents a virtual production of Roe by Lisa Loomer via Zoom at 7:30 p.m. April 8-10. Originally commissioned through the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions program, Roe centers around the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion.
Loomer’s play reveals the experiences of lawyer Sarah Weddington and plaintiff Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe). The play dissects the burning feelings and forces of will at work in the ongoing abortion debate, examining particularly how those involved in the case came to be swept up into the annals of history through the events. In its initial run, critics regarded this work as a lively and biting play that blends drama and comedy together to portray a visceral and engrossing look into the lives of the real people involved.
“Roe takes the audience beyond the newspapers and history books to meet the brave, flawed people who changed American life,” says director Britannia Howe, who is an M.F.A. in directing candidate in the School of Theatre and Dance. “This is a play about the people who carried the case of Roe v. Wade. It does not advocate for either side, pro-life or pro-choice, but balances many voices of the abortion debate.”
For the cast, portraying these historical voices authentically meant studying the real stories behind their characters. Guided by student dramaturg Payton Scudieri, the cast immersed themselves in research. “Payton was amazing,” reveals sophomore Leela Wolgemuth, who plays the title character Norma McCorvey. “She put together graphics showing characters’ relationships with each other, and for every historical figure she made a document that had information about them and a comprehensive list of things to watch like movies, documentaries, and news clips about Roe v. Wade.”
Armed with the research provided by Scudieri, the cast was well-prepared to dive into their roles. “They would show up to rehearsal with facts about their characters: ‘I had this many children, this is how my character felt about this case,’” Wolgemuth shared. “It’s interesting seeing actors come in knowing an enormous amount about these characters.”
For Wolgemuth, playing the title character and researching McCorvey’s life unearthed a surprising connection. “Norma is someone who is very easy to judge. I found her someone who is surprisingly easy to relate to. She has been placed in extreme situations either pushed down by people or placed on a pedestal, constantly, and she has acted from a place of survival, instinct, and defensiveness. As someone who empathizes with people’s emotions, it’s easy to see her point-of-view and see why she does the things she does when she has so much resting on her shoulders.”
While the pandemic has shifted productions to a virtual stage, it has not detracted from the intense collaboration and dedication of the teams involved in its staging on screen. Wolgemuth points out that even though actors are performing remotely, they still feel connected as a cast more than ever. “The cast has really come together by sharing their experiences from different sides of this issue. We’ve grown together.”
As director, Howe shares the same sentiment. “History is a shared experience and is a reflection of multiple points-of-view that are affected by race, religion, gender, sexuality, and class. I have reflected on what Sarah Weddington says in act 1, scene 1, that history is a shared experience, and this process has been a shared experience too. It has taken an ensemble to carry this story. I am grateful for the 20 actors playing multiple characters, the many designers who have crafted digital and textile art, and the army of technicians who engineer theatrical possibilities.”