Our political theatre is in high gear in the USA and world-wide. Oppressors and insurgents; Secular and Religious zealots; Globalists and Isolationists; Capitalist and Socialists; where is Solomon, Shakespeare, and Shaw when you need them? Recently, we had a theatre-weekend at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., seeing a new production, Roe, on Saturday, and a revival of Watch on the Rhine, on Sunday. Two plays written close to 80 years apart, which bring our history into context.
Roe, by Nisa Loomer, would seem to be an unlikely plot thriller. Who wants to immerse ones self into 40- years of the abortion debate. Watch on the Rhine, by Lillian Hellman, should have more intrigue, though in a tortured way, as we know the history of the Nazi and fascist resistance.
Roe excels in laying out the characters and sequence of events with historical accuracy. We meet the women involved in propelling “Jane Roe” to the Supreme Court decision. The court’s verdict placed a woman’s private decision about her pregnancy in the public debate, both for its challenge to traditional beliefs and its lack of legislative action. The play puts these abstractions into real-life people. But, the lawyers’ victory leads us to the subsequent, and ongoing, conflict between the “Right to Life” and “Right to Choose” camps. How we argue and reconcile these positions is the question.
Watch on the Rhine portrays a wealthy D.C. family, which through circumstances, hosts several European refugees, granted, refugees with status but not funds. One couple are aristocrats, deprived of their land and bank accounts, which they abandoned when they left Europe. They live by generosity and manipulation of their hosts in the USA. The matriarch’s daughter, with their German husband and their three children have come “on holiday” to the USA. We all know, and they will confirm, that the husband is with the resistance against the Nazi. In time, he will find the call to return to Europe to continue his work. How he will return is the question.
Roe methodically presents all sides of the debate about abortion/reproductive rights: the lawyers, Jane Roe who reveals herself by her name, Norma McCorvey, her friends and eventual lover, the women who come to the women’s health clinic seeking abortions, the doctors who find that this is the only work that their background allows them to perform, the Christians who form Operation Rescue, the judges and politicians. So many voices. So many positions. The play culminates with all of these characters calling out in a collision of voices, such that discussion and debate cannot be understood by us in the audience. The increase in decibel is all that we hear.
Similarly, Watch on the Rhine escalates as the competing Europeans in the drawing-room circle each other, each strategizing how to elude or extort the other for survival. They are animals caged by political events. One will destroy the other eventually. We sit by, watching, as helpless as the well-off family who question our nation’s foreign policy of isolationism.
These plays about adult struggles ultimately find their resolution and emotional appeal through the children in the plays. In Roe, the daughter of the minister, befriends Norma. An abstraction is difficulty to hold when a child accepts you in a way that the adults do not. Later, when the characters recite their positions, a young woman asked, “What do I do?” Choices are easily ignored when hypothetical.
In Watch on the Rhine, the three children present the competing needs of providing them security through escaping present danger, and resolving tyranny to secure their future. But, what cost will the adults pay to protect their children?
In an age of political turmoil, we need to be reminded that the actions we take today, the decisions we make today, the inaction and avoidance we carry out, shape society. We need plays which challenge us. We need plays which remind us why we should leave the auditorium to be players on our neighborhood and world stages.