WICA chooses timely storytelling with “Roe”

— Created October 5, 2022 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

It is timely. It is compelling. It is our history.

Those are just some of the ways to describe Whidbey Island Center for the Arts’ production of “Roe,” by playwright Lisa Loomer, perhaps best known for co-writing the screenplay for the film, “Girl Interrupted.” WICA is just the third theater in the nation with the rights to produce a newly updated version of the play, which includes the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade. The play opens Friday at the Langley theater and runs through Oct. 22.

While the topic has become a highly charged issue in the headlines, the play is described as an even-handed depiction of the history and background of the landmark court case.

“Is this a political play?” responded WICA Executive Artistic Director Deana Duncan to a question from Whidbey Weekly. “Maybe [it’s more] a sociopolitical piece of art, used to help the public understand a particular social or political issue. But this is not a play that is trying to lean one way or another politically. It’s fair-handed, and that is its brilliance. At the heart of this play is not a political ideology but the story of human beings who lived this moment in history – a history that is still being written today.”

“It isn’t an easy story. But it is an important one,” said director Rose Woods. “For me, WICA’s choice to produce this play, at this time, is a powerful one. As the director, it is an opportunity for me to do a deep dive into all the aspects of this particular history. Theater is a form of activism for me. As a female, it’s also personal.

“The history of Roe v. Wade is part of all our lives,” she continued. “Theater has long been an artistic voice of the people, often disguised as satire, comedy. This play, however, feels real, topical, personal. Human. And that intrigues me. The human experience is political in many ways. This play is an opportunity to have a voice. And a voice that speaks to the rights of women, the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. It’s all connected.”

Duncan said she specifically went looking for a play that “means something today,” and stumbled across “Roe” following a Google search for a Roe v. Wade play.

“Seriously, that’s how I found it,” she said. “I was intrigued by the script but didn’t think it was spot on anymore; even though it was only six years old, it felt and sounded dated. I wondered out loud – ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the playwright would update it for now?’ Well, that’s exactly what Lisa Loomer does; she updates the script every time it is produced in order for it to stay relevant and fresh. With the help of a Hedgebrook alum who knew Lisa, I was able to get in contact with her and her agent. We won the rights to be one of the first theaters in the country to fully produce this updated script after the fall of Roe v. Wade.”

Duncan said WICA’s long history and reputation of producing professional level theater is helping the theater attract top playwrights, directors and actors to the stage and to Whidbey Island. But she also said she really doesn’t know how audiences will respond to this production.

“Some will love it, some will hate it, like all great art,” she said. “I think audiences will be left with big ideas and questions – and isn’t that at the heartbeat of all great stories?”

“I never know how any audience will respond,” Woods acknowledged. “But I hope for a connection, a recognition, a questioning, room for dialog.”

This is a fast-paced play. There are 11 adult actors and two youth in the cast, who play a total of 52 characters. Time literally flies by, as audiences take in the story from its very beginning to its most recent turn.

 “Oh, this beautiful, fearless cast,” said Woods. “I love them and I respect them. Their thoughts and ideas, their questions, their willingness to take deep dives in the characters they portray. The script is complex and is not for the faint of heart, to say the least. There is also the challenge of portraying humans who actually lived or are living. This cast is powerful, fierce, questioning, compassionate and deeply involved and it is an honor to be able to work with them as well as the designers and crew who are all very invested in this work.”

Katrina Collins Bentsen plays the roles of Ophelia and Connie Gonzalez, two women with very different emotional reactions.

“Discussions about abortion are very upsetting to Ophelia,” she described. “But there is not much that upsets Connie – she is Norma’s life partner: loving, strong, and devoted. This story is so important — it’s a huge honor and responsibility to represent Connie’s voice, her love, her work, and her why. 

“It’s one thing to see Roe debated in the political realm, but it lands differently when told from a heart space,” Collins Bentsen continued. “The crew is coming from their heart, and the story is accessible to folks on all sides of the debate. Norma the person, and Roe the case, are both important and need to be better understood. This play helps with that. There’s also actual historical footage woven with current news – it’s a way to witness history unfolding in real time.”

Learning more about the characters and history can also help add context to the story, said Lexi Warden, who plays Roxy.

“I love stories that connect our past to our present,” she said. “That’s why I got into art and storytelling in the first place, because stories help me better understand the world around me. It has been particularly powerful to work on ‘Roe’ in our current political moment. Being in the world of the play has taught me so much that I likely wouldn’t have explored otherwise.”

“I don’t think people are aware of the back story of the decision to bring the case to the courts and certainly not aware of the complex individuals whose stories are intertwined with the legal issue,” said Jeff Natter, who plays Justice Harry Blackmun, among others.

“Equity and social justice issues have always been important to me,” he continued. “I spent 35 years of my professional life working towards these causes. I’ve always been disturbed by how rarely we hear men speaking up to defend women’s rights in areas such as body autonomy, fair pay and representation across the professional spectrum. ‘Roe’ cuts right to the heart of these issues at a crucial time for our country. I feel honored to participate in the production.”

Evening performances of “Roe” begin at 7:30 p.m., with two matinees Oct. 9 and 16 at 2 p.m. A full schedule and ticket information/purchasing options can be found at wicaonline.org.

“Like everything we work on here at WICA, I hope audiences take away an appreciation for the art form and for the stories they are introduced to,” Duncan said. “I hope they support artists, actors, designers, directors, stage managers…that they appreciate how lucky we are to live in a country we can create and share art that is controversial.”