Arena Stage is set to debut a shocking play about one of the most divisive topics in American politics: abortion. This production will begin a little over a week before our new president – who has said he’s committed to appointing a Supreme Court justice who wants to reverse the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision affirming a woman’s right to legalized abortion – takes the oath of office.
Following its successful run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Lisa Loomer’s acclaimed play comes to the District on January 12, and focuses on the little-known story of the two women at the center of the infamous Supreme Court case: plaintiff Norma McCorvey and her attorney Sarah Weddington. Their story is a lens for the future and continued polarization of American culture.
Sarah Jane Agnew reprises her role as Sarah Weddington, the ambitious and brilliant 26-year-old that argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. On Tap got a chance to speak with Agnew ahead of her DC performance about the unexpected relevance of ROE in 2017.
On Tap: What initially drew you to this role and play?
Sarah Jane Agnew: My very dear friend, Catherine Coulson, introduced me to it. She had been workshopping it at OSF [Oregon Shakespeare Festival] and felt I was right for the part of Sarah Weddington. She was a big advocate of mine. After reading a somewhat early draft and spending a week in workshops, I was completely in. The timing for this material couldn’t be better.
OT: This play had a successful run when it debuted in Oregon, under a slightly different political climate, and now it’s coming to DC, right ahead of a new presidential administration and with an empty Supreme Court seat to fill. Does all of this affect how you approach this story and the character?
SJA: It couldn’t be timelier, right? Yes, the stakes are so much higher for all of us now. Had the election gone a different way, I think I would have approached this run in a more celebratory manner. Now I go into it in crisis mode.
OT: You and Sara Bruner are reprising your roles from the original Oregon production. How does it feel to be returning to the show?
SJA: I have always found it very satisfying to revisit a role after some time away and in a new venue with different audience compositions. The muscle of the performance is there and the ability to hone nuance and deepen the emotional life becomes the focus. With ROE, we will also be working in rewrites that reflect where we are at this very moment in history regarding these issues. That’s very exciting to me. There is also a looseness with the ensemble, a playfulness that has been established, and that’s always a real pleasure to jump back into, especially with the comedic elements of the show.
OT: How do you think audiences will connect with your character?
SJA: In Ashland, [Oregon], the audiences tended to be very liberal, so they appeared to identify themselves with Sarah Weddington’s politics. We could determine this from the applause some lines received and the hissing that other text got. I guess I’m hoping for a more politically diverse audience in DC, and I welcome a bit more audience hissing on some of my lines. I should probably be cautious of what I wish for.
OT: How do you want the audience to leave the theater? Do you want to change minds? Do you want to find a way to connect opposing points of views? What’s the dialogue once the curtain goes down?
SJA: I don’t think the play sets out to win anyone over to any one side. The success of the piece is that it so very clearly and respectfully presents both sides of a very complicated and contentious issue, and asks the audience to spend two hours in consideration of a belief that is not their own. I do hope that people leave with a deeper understanding of how much jeopardy Roe v. Wade is in at this time.
ROE runs at Arena Stage from January 12 to February 19. Tickets are $40-$90.
Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org