Regional Reviews: Chicago
When There Are Nine
Valeriya Nedviga's scenic design does well in providing a dream-like atmosphere. On the floor, a wavy blue design broken up by bars of black suggests sunlight on water or pouring through stained-glass in a way that only occurs in memory. The walls of the justice's house are fractured pieces of white, spattered with gray, all with irregular edges, whereas the artistically paned windows are cut on sharp, clean diagonals. These architectural elements, paired with three simple pieces of furniture–a divan that sits upstage center, a roll-top secretary desk and wheeled chair downstage right, and a small, moveable dining table–suggest a present that is shifting all too rapidly, clashing with a heavy, sepia-toned past.
Good use is made of the black box space, which is long and shallow, and both Connor Sale's lighting and Val Gardner's sound design work well within it to signal the shifts between past and present, but there's no getting around the play's problematic pacing. Deering's scenes are short and rapid-fire at times and protracted at others. Furthermore, it features quite a large supporting cast, resulting in an overall feel of both literal and conceptual clutter.
Seeking to tell the story of both the woman and the career in ninety minutes, Deering's play ultimately does not succeed in capturing the emotion or import of either. This is not to say that there are not moving, impactful moments that manage to land. The cast is largely to thank for this, but even their talent and obvious investment in the project can't rescue some of the clunky language and odd choices in the text.
Talia Langman is a solid anchor for the cast as Ginsburg herself. She shifts ably from the frail, pain-riddled woman in the present to the steely resolve of the girl from Brooklyn. Early on in scenes with her mother (Zoe Nemetz, credited in the program as Justice 4), it's easy to feel her anguish at the thought of leaving her ailing mother to make good on the previous generation's dreams by heading to Cornell.
But while such scenes show us the roots of her conviction to cling to her life's work with everything she had, there's a staginess to the language and the scene breaks that undermines the dream-like quality. It also ultimately dehumanizes the other characters and Ginsburg herself in the process. For example, though Langman makes it easy to believe that Ginsburg's eventual husband Martin would fall for her from the first, he exists only as a too-good-to-be-true co-parent, cooker of meals, and fetcher of mail (much like many a semi-invisible, long-suffering wife in the stories of famous men, though the somewhat thankless role is played well by Gabriel Estrada).
Like both Estrada and Nemetz, Nicholia Q. Aguirre establishes a moving rapport with Langman as Gabby, Ginsburg's replacement day nurse. Yet after affording the character a story of her own, and creating a seemingly real and meaningful connection between the Ginsburg of the present and another human being, Deering takes an awkward swerve with her to lead into the play's rather abrupt end.
Also in the supporting cast, Shannon Bachelder, Sarah Kinn, Hannah Boutilier, Ginger De Leon, Ashlyn Seehafer, and Caitlin Wolfe are called on to play broad caricatures of the men who stand in the way of the young trailblazer. Each injects some much-needed humor in playing these roles with gusto, but this also calls attention to the curiously apolitical tone of the play. Deering seems comfortable taking shots at barriers Ginsburg faced sixty years ago (barriers that still exist to a large extent, to be sure), but sidesteps almost entirely the clear and present dangers that have arisen in the wake of Justice Scalia's death, the GOP's stonewalling to secure a conservative majority for a generation, and the role of Ginsburg's decision not to retire (as well as Justice Breyer's delayed decision to do so) in aiding this. Even bearing in mind the spirit in which Deering intends the play, the eleventh hour focus on surrender and personal peace does not seem to fully honor either the woman or her political career and legacy in its ambivalence toward the future of the Supreme Court.
When There Are Nine runs through March 13, 2022, at The Broadway Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago IL. Masking and proof of vaccination are required for audience members. For tickets and information, visit www.pridearts.org or call 773-857-0222.