Sara Bruner stood on the boards at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., last month, shocked as just one man clapped — loudly, purposefully, vehemently, she says. It happened in response to a line in “Roe,” a new work by Oregon playwright Lisa Loomer about the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.
Bruner plays Norma McCorvey, who is more famously known as Jane Roe. McCorvey was denied an abortion by the state of Texas, and her court case argued by Sarah Weddington came to represent the controversial issue.
That “Roe” performance was just days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and tension in D.C. was high. One of the play’s lines is, “In 2016, a pro-choice woman ran for president, won the popular vote and lost the election.”
The audience erupted into applause for Hillary Clinton after the words “won the popular vote.” When the final phrase — “And lost the election” — was uttered, the solo clapping started.
“Then the Clinton side of the audience started up again, and we all just stood there waiting to continue the play,” Bruner says. “That died down, and the man started up again. Then a woman yelled, ‘We can hear you.’ The guy clapping for Trump said, so loud and so clear, ‘Get over it.’”
It’s the norm for playgoers to laugh during a comedy or to gasp or cry during something dark or tragic.
“But this is a play where people are talking back,” says Bruner, who worked at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival for nearly 20 seasons. “They’re cheering for certain ideas and historical events we’re re-enacting. But this man’s applause was something else. It was a stunning moment.”
It’s not very often that an actor gets to experience the collision between real life and art like Bruner does. Things are happening quickly on the political forefront today, and Loomer is writing and tweaking the play to keep pace. She reworked the ending, for instance, after Trump nominated Neil M. Gorsuch, a federal judge who describes himself as a “committed conservative,” to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hot button issue
“Roe” opened at Arena Stage just before the presidential inauguration and runs through Sunday, Feb. 19. It has received strong reviews for its actors’ performances, including Bruner’s “inspired” take on McCorvey.
Loomer’s play seeks to sincerely reflect the issue of abortion rights from both sides, giving pro-life and pro-choice each its due.
The play has received attention for its balanced approach to a difficult and complicated topic.
“I don’t want to add to the polarization,” Loomer told The Washington Post. “I think I’ve done something radical here, in that you don’t always see two sides presented fully in one play. People like their heroes and villains — it’s easier. I didn’t want to do easy with this one.”
But thanks to this moment in history, “Roe” is a flashpoint for audiences who bring their own sensibilities and beliefs about this polarizing issue with them.
“In the theater, we all know that the collective consciousness of what’s going on affects what happens on stage because so much depends on the audience’s experience,” Bruner says. “But I think this is once-in-a-lifetime. The play will go on, but it will never be like this again.”
“Roe” was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where Bruner has been a company member since 2014. Treasure Valley audiences know Bruner from her nearly two decades with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. She played roles such as Snug the Joiner in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Julia in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” and Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”
“Roe” is one of the plays OSF commissioned for its “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle” that seeks to highlight moments of change in our culture and history. With 37 plays planned, it so far has generated Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning drama “All the Way” about President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” which delves into the heart of working-class America. Both plays have received Broadway runs.
This production of “Roe” is a co-world premiere among OSF, Arena and California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where the production will run March 3 to April 2.
“Roe” played much differently on OSF’s home turf in Ashland, where it ran from April through October 2016.
“I know a lot of us thought the election would have a different outcome,” Bruner says. “The play felt different with that knowledge. It felt more like a celebration, more informative. There was a lightness to it, although the play isn’t light. It’s different playing it now (in D.C.). The immediacy is arresting.”
From Idaho to D.C.
Originally from Deer Lodge, Mont., Bruner, 39, discovered her love of theater as a teenager growing up in Burley. When ISF’s Shakespearience outreach theater production rolled into her high school, she set her sights on some day working with ISF.
Bruner moved to Boise to attend Boise State University on a theater scholarship in the mid-1990s but dropped out to work with ISF and Idaho Theater for Youth. (She eventually did finish her degree at BSU.) In 2012, she became an artistic associate at ISF and its sister company Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater, turning her attention to directing Shakespearience tours, casting and occasionally assisting Artistic Director Charlie Fee between turns on stage.
But with all of her experience, Bruner never expected to find herself poised on the divide between two sides of arguably the most polarizing American issue of the past 50 years — the debate between pro-choice and pro-life. It’s especially intense because her character plays the poster woman for the pro-choice movement who eventually becomes pro-life after a religious conversion. During the play, Bruner spends about equal time on each side of the fence. That makes McCorvey tricky to portray.
“History doesn’t take her seriously,” Bruner says. “My job is to take her seriously and present her with compassion. To do that I have to find out for myself why she made the decisions that she did, so she’s not written off.”
To that end, Bruner enthusiastically went to the national Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21. The next Friday, she not so happily went to the March for Life looking for insight into McCorvey’s character, but what she found taught her as much about herself.
“I felt I owed it to my character and to the play to get a feel for who and what I’m standing up for, and it was really difficult,” Bruner admitted. “At the Women’s March, I felt completely elevated. When I was at the March for Life, I was filled with so much rage and I was aware of all the thoughts I was having. It was bringing out a side of me that I was really unhappy with. I was judging people. Like, ‘I know exactly who you are.’ I think that’s where we go wrong. Just because someone has one belief, that doesn’t mean we know everything about them. The issue was blinding me.
“After the March for Life, it felt really different doing the play. One of the things that Lisa (Loomer) tries to do is say that you need to have compassion for the other side. You need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in order for us to have a real discussion. You have to be willing to be challenged.”
Bruner’s journey to OSF and her “Roe” role began at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival through a connection forged by Bruner and director Tracy Young, who has strong ties to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Young directed several plays at ISF and Great Lakes Theater, including “The Taming of the Shrew” in 2012 that starred Bruner as Katherine.
The next year, Young asked Bruner to help workshop her adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s sci-fi fantasy novel “A Wrinkle in Time” at OSF. The theater festival in southern Oregon is arguably the most known and noted Shakespeare festival in the country as well as one of the most difficult theater companies for actors to break into.
“Tracy told me, ‘I don’t want you to think you’re going to be in the play. They’re looking for someone completely different,’” Bruner says. “I went to Ashland for the week in the dead of winter. I had never done a workshop for a play before, and I was really excited.”
After a week of readings — Bruner ended up reading the character of Charles Wallace Murry, the main character in “A Wrinkle in Time” — she returned to Cleveland to focus on her season at Great Lakes. A few weeks later, OSF artistic director Bill Rauch called with an offer.
“I did not see it coming at all,” Bruner says. “I had a year of work lined up and was going to really focus on directing.”
But the actors from the workshop had written to Rauch and advocated for Bruner to join the company. She ended up being cast as Charles Wallace and continues to work with OSF.
“I was only going to leave for a year because I just love ISF and Great Lakes and everything I got to do there,” Bruner says. “But I just keep getting reeled in (at OSF) because the projects are so exciting.”
She has had the opportunity to originate roles in adaptations such as Charles Wallace as well as Sue Tinder in “Fingersmith.”
“‘Roe’ is the first brand-spanking-new play I’ve gotten to do,” Bruner says. “Originating roles is so different. To be part of the process of creating a new character — you’re in the room and having conversations with the playwright about moments and lines and character arcs — it is really exciting.”
Living with “Roe” for almost a year has changed Bruner, especially this time performing in our nation’s capital, working a stone’s throw from the Washington Monument. Loomer plans to continue updating the play as history unfolds, and the whole experience feels like being in a creative cauldron.
Currently, the last line of the play is, “With the Supreme Court behind us, at this moment, Roe still stands.”
But that could change, Bruner says, and that makes this play about something more.
“It’s not about reviews, and it’s not about performances,” Bruner says. “It’s about an issue and something bigger than the singular. Who knows what’s going to happen now? It’s been 44 years since the decision and now the new Supreme Court nominee just gets us back to where we were. If we’ve learned anything historically about this case it’s that it will not be wrapped up any time soon.”