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“Roe” Versus Women, Mothers, Others, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

“Roe” Versus Women, Mothers, Others, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Lisa Loomer Rocks the Boat: Who Chooses?

by Svea Vikander

Lisa Loomer’s “Roe” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre tells the story of the landmark Supreme Court abortion case Roe versus Wade (1973) and the women who fought for it. The play draws us into the tension of competing narratives: the story as told by polished lawyer Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) who, along with Linda Coffee (a convincingly eccentric Susan Lynskey), argued the case; and the life and opinions of spunky Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner), the pregnant and feisty “Roe,” who claims the lawyers deceived her into pressing the case.

Sara Bruner and Sarah Jane Agnew, in “Roe” by Lisa Loomer. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Norma’s story begins in a lesbian bar in small town Texas. As a waitress at the Red Devil Lounge, she by turns scandalizes and seduces her colleagues, who tell her that she is “going to hell on a scholarship” as penance for her antics. In a 2013 article in Vanity Fair, Joshua Prager recounts a story from Norma’s co-worker at the time: “Norma would bring two outfits to work: a dress and jeans, so that she could wear the jeans if the customer were girly, the dress if she was a cute butch.”  

Catherine Castellanos and Sara Bruner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

While it did not make it into Lisa Loomer’s script, this anecdote encapsulates Norma’s shape-shifting personality and the shifting gender norms of the time. Spanning 50 years of cultural change—from the late ‘60s to the present—“Roe” presents a multitude of perspectives not just on abortion but also on women’s roles and social class inequalities. Once the small town Texas girl becomes famous as “Roe,” long after she has had to give her baby away, we see the ways she uses and is used by the lawyers, the news, prominent feminists, and talk show hosts. She continues to wear jeans for some, and dresses for others.

Amy Newman and Sara Bruner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Sarah Weddington’s story begins at a Women’s Consciousness Raising group in which the members devote their time to both afternoon tea and the search for their own elusive cervixes. We are introduced to Weddington’s legal ambitions as she delivers an impromptu speech on the need for universal abortion access. She describes bloody, tortured deaths and “entire hospital wings for botched abortions.” While Weddington expounds, Roxanne (Kenya Alexander), the Consciousness Raising group’s lone woman of color, attempts to educate her about racial inequity. She manages only a few interjections. We learn that while Weddington wants to do the right thing, she is willing to railroad a few people to get it done. 

Sarah Jane Agnew and Sara Bruner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Director Bill Rauch knows how to engage an audience. As the play progresses, the audience becomes increasingly agitated; on opening night a woman yelled an “Amen!” after Norma calls an evangalist a “Dumbass Christian cunt.” Like “Hand to God,” also playing at Berkeley Rep and also set in Texas, “Roe” would surely not play so well in the Texan towns where most of its action takes place. And like “Hand to God,” the playwright has mostly succeeded in portraying people with funny human foibles instead of caricatured Southern hicks. 

Loomer edges close to stereotype in her portrayals of drug and alcohol abuse. She presents Norma’s mother Molly (Pamela Dunlap) as a ridiculous, messy, mean, perpetual drunkard. Like a Disney villain, she has no saving grace. We fear her and we laugh at her misery. In contrast, when Loomer’s well-known public figures wryly introduce themselves by way of their actual obituaries or their Wikipedia entries, we share their annoyance. These woefully inadequate obits feel delightfully, hysterically wrong. Like the characters on the stage, there is nothing we can do about it. 

Sara Bruner, Amy Newman, and Gina Daniels.  Photo: Jenny Graham.

Roe” has an extra challenge: How to present Norma McCorvey as self-serving and irresponsible without defaulting to anti-choice stereotypes of abortion-seeking women as, well, self-serving and irresponsible. Norma becomes a multi-dimensional character when she recounts the loss of her three children (all forced adoptions, the Supreme Court case having taken years to resolve). In these subplots, her wellings of emotion feel authentic, her rancor appropriate.

But I am wary of using a woman’s maternity (whether thwarted or fulfilled) to feel compassion for her. Throughout the play, anti-choice activists do precisely that. To them, motherhood will provide redemption. The Anti-Choicers denigrate and pity women who choose not to reproduce, including Norma and her decades-long partner Connie. Am I, in caring for Norma only when she shows her grief at losing her children, doing anything different?

Sarah Jane Agnew, Susan Lynskey, Richard Elmore, Sara Bruner, Catherine Castellanos. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Scene designer Rachel Hauk’s simple wooden stage set features a series of interlocking, sliding floors that move silently to bring actors forward to us and then back. Wendall K. Harrington’s stage-wide projections of palm trees, convenience stores, and government buildings transport us around the country swiftly and effectively. Hauk also makes use of historical photographs, including those of women whose names have long since been lost. We see them marching, holding placards with mottoes like: “Don’t Rock the Cradle, Rock the Boat!” Like this rumbling and tender play, the placards feel both sweetly antiquated and terrifyingly relevant. 

“Roe” by Lisa Loomer, directed by Bill Rauch, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in co-production with Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage, a world premiere, through Sunday, April 2, 2017. Info: berkeleyrep.org

Cast: Jim Abele, Sarah Jane Agnew, Kenya Alexander, Mark Bedard, Zoe Bishop, Sara Bruner, Catherine Castellanos, Gina Daniels, Pamela Dunlap, Richard Elmore, Susan Lynskey, and Amy Newman.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.  Also check our Recent Shows.

Svea Vikander is a Swedish-Canadian radio producer and mental health professional. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two small children. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

“Frog and Toad”: French Food for Thought at Bay Area Children’s Theatre

“Frog and Toad”: French Food for Thought at Bay Area Children’s Theatre

Ambiguity for Little Amphibians

by Svea Vikander

In her 2012 book Bringing Up Bebe (Penguin), Pamela Druckerman talks about the amorality of French children’s books. Things aren’t resolved, she tells us: when strands of conflict unravel they rarely end tied in an instructive little bow. In America, however, we expect our children’s stories not only to entertain but to improve our children, too. We want stories to teach our kids how to count, how to manage their money, or how to stand up to bullies. “Frog and Toad,” by Bay Area Children’s Theatre, running weekends until September 25, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, sidesteps heavy-handed morality to portray instead that most ethically challenging of life’s endeavors: a real human relationship.

The story is told through short and lively episodes in the shared lives of Frog and Toad, who live next door to each other in matching Disney-esque houses. They are two old friends whose love for one another is deeply devoted and ostensibly platonic. Their complementary personalities provide good fodder for stories of misunderstanding: Will Snail ever deliver Toad his letter? Tales of disagreement: Is risk-taking Frog responsible for risk-averse Toad’s sledding misadventure? And incidents of thwarted desire: Will they ever discover who wrecked their leaf piles? The piece is a Tony-nominated musical recommended for children ages three and up. I brought my five year-old son, Tiyo, to attend his first-ever play.

The reviewer and her son
The reviewer and her theater-going son.

Tiyo laughed out loud when Toad broke his morning alarm with a shoe, and he watched the oversized chocolate chip cookie dance with wide eyes. By the time the production was three quarters through, however, he was nudging my arm and quietly whispering that he would like to go home. By the time it was finished, he was waving his feet dangerously close to the upper vertebrae of the dad in the next row.

He wasn’t alone.

Looking out at the audience of small children and their grandparents during the final act, I was reminded of a bucket of writhing fishing worms. A production for preschoolers should probably be shorter, if only as a public health measure. But despite their kinetic desires, no child cried, screamed, or otherwise interrupted the 65 minute show; a compliment, as any parent knows, of the highest order.

Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad and Brett Jones as Frog
Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad and Brett Jones as Frog

I enjoyed it, too. Like many children’s musicals, its lyrical word-play is intended for the parents, not the children, and it was both clever and funny. The acting style, with Brett Jones as Frog and Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad, fits its audience perfectly. They are emphatic and clear, without being plodding or condescending. Amy Poehler look-alike Chrissy Brooks plays the adorable scrunch-faced mouse as if the role was made for her, and the whole cast can sing and dance.

Tiyo discussing the show with Theatrius editor Barry Horwitz
Tiyo discussing the show with Theatrius Editor Barry David Horwitz

The world of Frog and Toad has no authority figures. This means that unlike, for example, every episode of “Full House” ever made, the show does not include a Major Misstep from which an authority figure expounds on right or wrong. When things go awry we’re left to evaluate the characters’ decisions for ourselves. Such ambiguity makes not only for a better story, but also an unusual chance for our kids to exercise their own muscles of moral reasoning.

In one scene, Toad feels insecure about his appearance in a bathing suit and jumps into the water while Frog tries unsuccessfully to shield him from the pool-yard taunts of their friends. I worried that the taunting, delivered in a catchy, big band refrain of “Toad looks funny in a bathing suit!” would be upsetting for my son, who recently started kindergarten at a new school. And I felt a nagging discomfort when I realized that the scene was never to be fully resolved: Toad, too tired to keep swimming, climbs out of the pool, accepts that he looks funny in a bathing suit, and joins his friends in dancing and singing the song.

Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad
Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad

I waited for the moment when Frog would chastise the friends for their cruelty, or when some ex-machina event would befall the bullies. But it never came. The message to children, if any, is simply “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Adults know that this is an effective method of deflecting bullying. But we are loathe to admit it to our children; it’s not exactly party to the social justice values espoused by Danny Tanner or the Berkeley School Board.

For a moment, I wanted Frog and Toad’s fantasy world to correspond to my fantasy of childhood, in which my own children neither bully nor are bullied, are free to be themselves, and are supported in the peaceful resolution of interpersonal conflicts while carefully consuming a healthy snack of local organic fruit at a table made of reclaimed wood. Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that they are dancing amphibians, Frog and Toad portray the messy, exuberant reality of human dynamics instead. Sometimes the people who love us say unkind things. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes we just get out of the pool and dance.

And my son? He loved that scene.

In the days since, the song has become something of an inside joke between us. He sings it with me and he sang it to his little sister. She thinks it’s about putting a toad in your bathing suit but Tiyo and I know that the real story is something much more complicated, and much more interesting. It’s about what happens when the adults aren’t looking, when the knot of our insecurities is worried loose and we are left to imperfectly, independently, tie it back up again. America doesn’t do ambiguity well but Frog and Toad do. Take your kids to see it. They deserve a story that speaks to them.

“A Year with Frog & Toad,” Book by Willie Reale, Music by Robert Reale, presented by Bay Area Children’s Theatre, is playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Sunday, September 25, 2016. For info: bactheatre.org

Director: Nina Meehan. Music Director: Lynden Bair. Choreographer: Hannah Dworkin. Stage Manager: Christina Larson. Costumes: Amy Bobeda & Maggie Yule. Lighting: Sarina Renteria. Props: Joan Howard. Scenic Designer: Martin Flynn. Sound: Annemarie Scerra.

Cast: Frog: Brett Jones. Toad: Anthony Rollins-Mullens. Snail: Max Thorne. Turtle/Bird/Squirrel/Mole: Chrissy Brooks. Lizard/Bird/Squirrel/Mole: Cabiria Jacobsen.

SVEA VIKANDERSvea Vikander is a Swedish-Canadian radio producer and parenting coach. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two children. Follow her on twitter and Instagram.