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by Karen Topham

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Playwright: Lisa Loomer

At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago . Tickets: . Price: $20-70. Runs through: Feb. 23

No matter where you stand on the abortion issue, if what you seek in a play is something provocative and well-acted with compelling and original staging, Lisa Loomer's Roe is one you simply must see.

From its start, it demands your engagement and aggressively grabs at your affective responses, setting you up for a powerful roller coaster of an evening. Some scenes will feel perfectly reasonable, some will make you laugh out loud, while still others will make you want to throw something at the stage, and that's all the evidence you need that this play is doing its job.

While Loomer does show us snippets of the actual case, with recordings of the Supreme Court justices asking questions of the lawyers ( Mikhail Fiksel's sound design is excellent, even if the recordings themselves are often a bit mushy ), that is not Roe's primary focus. It is two women and their individual stories that make this fascinating piece work.

Kate Middleton—as Norma McCovey aka Jane Roe—has, perhaps, the more difficult job, showing the evolution of McCovey from ( it may be argued ) a tool of the left to a tool of the right as she fell under the spell of Project Rescue leader Flip Benham ( played by Ryan Kitley ). Her metamorphosis is slow but complete, and we witness the ways in which this uncertain, impoverished, self-centered lesbian with dubious morals and no access to power was influenced by those working for a cause. Sarah Weddington ( played by Christina Hall ), meanwhile, has her own challenge, growing from a lawyer just three years out of law school tasked with arguing this case before the Supreme Court into a seasoned feminist decrying its fading mandate.

It would have been easy for Loomer to make Kitley's character the villain of this piece, but she's far more even-handed than that. In intimate conversations with McCovey, Benham comes across as a man who, yes, covets the coup of bringing Jane Roe to his side, but who also sincerely feels he is saving her soul. The moral center of the play, though, is McCovey's long-term lover, Connie ( played by Stephanie Diaz ), a Mexican woman with strong ties to both Catholicism and the mysticism of the Aztecs. Connie remains non-judgmental and true to herself through Norma's major belief swings, only becoming upset when Benham's evangelism begins to make her lover believe that her own homosexuality is somehow wrong, leading her to pull away from their relationship.

Stalling does a remarkable job of holding all of these various pieces together while telling a story that straddles an issue in which there is no middle ground. Her compartmentalized staging, facilitated by Pollard's realistic roll-ins and Keith Parham's lighting, allows us to see this case as both sides see it. Her transitions from scene to scene; through time periods ( kudos to Jessica Pabst's costumes ); and from history to imagination are seamless.

Roe is very likely to make you angry, but good theater is supposed to bring out strong emotions as it holds a mirror up to reality. What Loomer really has done here is to create an inventive, challenging play that forces us to see this landmark decision in new ways. As we move inexorably through an era in which the freedom it defined will likely be destroyed or at least severely limited, it's important for all of us to know what, exactly, the stakes are.

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