Vietgone serves as a challenge to the American memory, which tends to recall the Vietnam War as just a morass of mistaken strategies and intentions.
In 2008, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival embarked on a 10-year commissioning project called American Revolutions. The plan was to engender 37 new theater works (37 being the number of plays Shakespeare wrote, more or less) that focus on signal moments of the country’s past as a way to illuminate aspects of national identity. by Lisa Loomer, was born of that incentive, and it takes on a piping hot potato: the abortion issue. The protagonists are the two women who were on the Roe side of the 1973 case, which decriminalized abortion. One is Norma McCorvey, identified pseudonymously in the court papers as “Jane Roe” because a similar case in the works already involved a more standard “Jane Doe.” She is the product of a horrible family environment, is leading a hardscrabble existence in Texas, is hobbled by substance abuse, and is unhappily pregnant for the third time. The other is Sarah Weddington, a relatively untried lawyer who seeks a pregnant woman desiring an abortion who might become a plaintiff in a case tackling the anti-abortion statutes then in force in Texas. A fascinating tale unfolds, complicated by unpredictable shifts in McCorvey’s outlook; after serving as the poster child for the pro-choice movement, she ends up embracing religion and becomes an anti-choice activist. (Yes, this is what happened in real life.) On the whole, these two women don’t like each other. is both a vast political epic and an intimate personal story. Loomer lets her story leap blithely through the years, sometimes relating episodes as reminiscence. Far from being a preachy history lesson, this worldpremiere production, directed virtuosically by Bill Rauch (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director), is a feast of intersecting theatrical approaches, embracing song and dance, comical confrontations, wry observations of quaint proto-feminist ritual, even working recordings of the Supreme Court judges of 1973 into the dialogue. The actors render powerful performances. Sara Bruner, as McCorvey, is a tornado of erratic emotion, a character who is both hard to like and easy to sympathize with, improbable as that may sound. Sarah Jane Agnew, as Weddington, provides a sturdy foil for McCorvey’s chaos; her emotional restraint is indeed that of an analytical attorney, but her character seethes with purpose nonetheless. Another standout in the cast is Catherine Castellanos, as Connie Gonzalez, who becomes McCorvey’s lesbian partner (it’s complicated) until Jesus says that’s not OK — and continues to prop her up even after that. Among Loomer’s admirable achievements in this captivating theater work is that although it focuses on a hotly argued issue, it is not itself polemical. Dispassionate and even-handed, it sticks to historical facts (while casting them in an entertaining way), and it manages to put a human face on both sides of a question that indeed stands as a touchstone of recent American history.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is at 15 S. Pioneer St., in Ashland. The current season continues through Oct. 30; phone 800-219-8161 for tickets.