Sisters in Law – Theatre Review: The Phoenix Theatre Company, Phoenix

The book upon which writer Jonathan Shapiro based his new play is called Sisters in Law, with the subtitle How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.

The New York Times Best Seller was written by Linda Hirshman. It’s a well-crafted, thoroughly researched, highly-detailed account of the first and second women to serve as Supreme Court justices. It’s also an easy read which comes as a surprise considering its 390-page length and how precise it is with its diligent attention to complicated details, making it fully accessible to the rest of us non-lawyers not used to legalese.

Shapiro’s play, now in performance on The Phoenix Theatre Company’s main stage for its world premiere until April 28, is not the book. That would require a lengthy documentary series, the kind Ken Burns or Nova might film as a special two or three-parter on PBS. The playwright has taken biographer Hirshman’s scrupulous work and used it as a template to bring to life in theatrical terms the relationship between two trailblazing women whose work has influenced American law and each other in ways that are ultimately immeasurable.

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens is the only person listed in Hirshman’s book as a Justice interviewed. There’s nothing to suggest the biographer spoke with any other justices, and that includes the two subjects of the play, Ginsburg and O’Connor. But she did talk to several of their clerks, and it’s from these conversations, plus the detailed accounts of facts that occurred between 1993 and 2012, that Shapiro created his dialog. Throughout the play’s 80 minute duration, no intermission, the playwright imagines how private conversations and confrontations might have been. “Nobody got here being humble,” O’Connor (Laura Wernette) tells Ginsburg (Eileen T’Kaye). “You pretend to be humble.

The strength in this newly mounted Dana Resnick directed premiere production is in the casting. Biographer Hirshman describes Sandra Day O’Connor as open-faced, cheerful and energetic, and that’s how Laura Wernette plays her. She’s smart, often sassy, and ready to give advice. Hardly a ‘robust’ voice for social change, O’Connor warns the newcomer to the court not to make differences right away, letting her know that while Ginsburg wants to bring about change fast, the men on the court don’t want change at all. “We don’t re-write the law,” she tells Ginsburg, “We apply it.” The quote that’s embroidered on a cushion in O’Conner’s office reads, ‘Often Wrong But Never In Doubt.’

In her book, Hirshman describes Ginsburg as skinny and petite, even minuscule. While shorter in stature when standing next to Wernette’s O’Connor, Eileen T’Kaye is none of those things, but there’s no mistaking who she is as soon as she enters. With her glasses and the hair pulled tightly back, T’Kaye makes a clear and vivid impression of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and not only in appearance. Knowing what we know of the Brooklyn born Associate Justice, particularly from the excellent 2018 documentary RBG (which includes an appearance from biographer Hirshman) T’Kaye fully captures the essence of Ginsburg’s matter-of-fact manner. “Some people shouldn’t have a lifetime appointment,” Ginsburg insists. “They don’t grow, they just linger.” When Ginsburg confronts O’Connor and delivers advice that comes like a monolog, O’Connor declares, “Everyone from New York talks like a psychiatrist.”

While we’re aware of Ginsburg’s Brooklyn background, the area is not often mentioned, in contrast to O’Connor who regularly references her adopted state of Arizona and Maricopa County. “Nothing is hard after running the Junior League in Phoenix,” she states. For obvious reasons, local valley audiences laugh, but Shapiro often includes several moments of good humor without the need to localize. During a private hospital room sequence where Ginsburg is recuperating from a colon cancer operation, Shapiro imagines a dream where O’Conner, in running shorts and tee-shirt, visits the recovering patient. There’s a gift of a cactus by the bedside that O’Connor sent. “It reminds me of you,” she tells Ginsburg, “Cold and prickly.” And when the woman makes her exit after another lengthy debate and testy disagreement with her Court Justice sister, Ginsburg declares aloud, “She won’t admit a mistake. Not even in a dream!

Many of the scenes are short, often moving at a brisk pace from one setup to the next. Given the subject matter, the dialog can’t help but remain persuasive. But occasionally it jars. When Ginsburg is alone after O’Connor has made her exit, the Associate Justice turns to the audience and states, “They said it’s a lifetime appointment,” then clenches her fist. With a guttural sound to her voice, she grits her teeth and declares, “I’m getting every minute out of mine!” It works as an end-of-scene applause bait but feels curiously uncharacteristic.  

Plus, surprisingly, the play concludes on a sentimental note that’s not authentic. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be tears between the legal groundbreakers when looking back on achievements and saying goodbye, it’s just that the moment comes across more of a writer’s ploy to manipulate an emotion that, based on everything we’ve seen and heard, doesn’t feel would have happened; at least, not like this.

Plus, the play in its current form isn’t particularly theatrical. Even if the dialog engages, movement is at a minimum, giving the two actors little to do other than to stand near each other, walk around a chair or a desk, and talk. Close your eyes and the piece would be equally effective as an audio/radio play without a need to change. Seeing it live adds little, other than the enjoyment of watching Wernette and T’Kaye and their high-energy verbal sparring matches.

The play’s title, as with the book, is a clever one, though O’Connor and Ginsburg are hardly sisters from the same mold. One is a Republican, a rancher’s daughter, and a Christian. The other, a Democrat, a New York City woman, and a Jew. Yet both shaped the boundaries of several issues that legally helped change the lives of women while forging a friendship that, considering the circumstances and their personal differences, is quite remarkable, and that’s what Shapiro’s play is really about, even if in its current, world premiere form, it’s not yet compelling theatre.

Sisters in Law continues on The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Main Stage until April 28

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

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