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A turning point

Lisa Loomer was on a walk with her husband when the call came from Bill Rauch. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director asked whether Loomer would be up for writing a play for the OSF’s History Cycle, an ambitious project for which the OSF commissions plays about turning points in American life.

“Hmmnn,” she said. “I’ll bet he wants to talk to me about Roe v. Wade.”

Just so.

Loomer is a nationally known playwright and TV and movie writer, but she wasn’t interested in a courtroom drama. Her plays tend to be more theatrical than realistic. But when she started reading about the two women who brought the suit that led to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion — Texan Norma McCorvey, who wanted an abortion, and young lawyer Sarah Weddington — sparks went off for Loomer.

“I thought that, through these women, I could look at a divided America and at why it is so hard for us to talk to each other,” she says.

The result is “Roe,” a drama that’s running through Oct. 29 at the OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre. The abortion battle tends to be seen in black and white. But Loomer didn’t want a didactic play with black-and-white heroes and villains.

“People feel it’s their issue,” she says. “Feminists. The Christian Right. There was a certain amount of pressure for the play to take sides. The play has a position, but I wanted people of different beliefs and politics to be able to see together and hear both sides.”

Loomer has written topical plays about the relations between affluent women and their Latina nannies (“Living Out”), women’s male-inspired images of their bodies (“The Waiting Room”) and attention-deficit disorder (“Distracted,” which ran at OSF in 2007).

For “Homefree,” a 2015 play about homeless young people, she volunteered in a homeless shelter. For “Living Out,” she sat in a park and listened to middle-class mothers one day and nannies the next, seeking a handle on a big issue through personal stories.

When an actor friend asked her to write a sketch on traditional Chinese foot binding, she began to think about what women have had done to their bodies in the name of “beauty.” That led to “The Waiting Room,” which brought women from different eras together in a theatrical space.

“I often start with something that’s pissing me off,” she says.

For “Roe,” she read both Weddington’s and McCorvey’s books. Weddington was the youngest lawyer to ever win a Supreme Court case. McCorvey eventually switched sides, becoming a right-to-life Christian and later a Roman Catholic after she said God talked to her.

In her first draft, Loomer cast the play in the point of view of a character called Roxy, who represented contemporary young women. But she discarded that, and the story’s frame became the accounts by Weddington and McCorvey, who in the play jump around through the years.

A play about abortion could have been preachy and dull, but “Roe” not only grips audiences, it has them laughing — at least in spots.

“It’s not that I see the issues as not serious,” she says. “Cancer is not funny, but people are funny, even in desperate situations. It’s the skewed way I see things. I did not know this play was going to be funny. I’m shocked at how much people are laughing in the first act.”

“Roe” starts in the working-class lesbian bar where McCorvey works, then switches to a middle-class home where women in a consciousness-raising session are attempting cervical self-examinations with the help of “Our Bodies Our Selves,” a seminal women’s book. It’s a comic scene, but Loomer says it’s there because she felt it was important to look at social class.

She wants audiences to consider that the violence of the pro-life side over the years — at least eight murders, 17 attempted murders, hundreds of death threats and numerous bombings and arsons — come from strongly held convictions.

“They feel abortion is murder,” she says.

The Rev. Flip Benham, who led the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, can be seen these days on the Internet excoriating gays, Muslims and others, but in “Roe,” as played by Jeffrey King, he’s no firebrand. He seems a sweet, low-key guy as he befriends McCorvey.

“I used the portrayal of this person to dovetail with the larger intent,” Loomer says. “To listen to both sides and have compassion.”

McCorvey’s longtime partner, Connie, also shows up, occupying a point on the compass somewhere between McCorvey and Weddington and Benham.

“She became for me in some sense the moral center of the play,” Loomer says. “She also represented a version of Christianity. She doesn’t talk about it much, but she’s someone with no judgment and a great ability to love and forgive. I was interested in her Christian values. Jesus said to love one another.

“I think it’s important to see all the characters in the full dimension of their humanity. Otherwise I feel I’m adding to the divide.”

Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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A major Roe v. Wade anniversary puts Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) back in the public eye in 'Roe.' OSF photo by Jenny Graham