Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on Linda Hirshman's biography "Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World," Shapiro focuses his play on a few major moments in these women's lives. The play begins in 1993 after Ginsburg joins O'Connor on the highest court in the land, and the first half follows the debate the two women have concerning Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., which was the first case Ginsburg heard on the court that dealt with gender discrimination. We witness the sisterly bond and revelry the almost polar opposite women had as they both attempt to find common ground, while they fight for recognition on the male-dominated court.
O'Connor prefers to take "slow, small steps" in regards to advancing women's rights while Ginsburg's mission was to find a way for the Supreme Court to equate sexual discrimination with racial discrimination to more quickly bring change to the land. The play does a fairly good job of depicting how their diverse backgrounds, differences of religion, and opposing political views made them opposites yet also strengthened their abilities and allowed them to set precedent in many cases during the 13 years they served on the Supreme Court together.
Shapiro is an ex-federal prosecutor and law professor who has also worked as a writer and producer of such TV shows as "The Black List" and "Boston Legal." So, he is adept and knowledgeable on both the law and writing for complex characters. His play does a good job of bringing these factual women to life on stage with dialogue that is sharp and funny. However, the play doesn't exactly present the women as equals and often sides with Ginsburg, painting her as the passionate, laser-focused trailblazer advancing women's rights while O'Connor is portrayed as a wishy-washy, cautious conservative who is more focused on finding a way to gain a majority through compromise without ruffling feathers, continually reminding Ginsburg that she was the first woman on the Court. That unevenness in characterization of the two women, especially in portraying O'Connor as a woman who wasn't always supportive of advancing women's rights, even if it's true, makes this a play where Ginsburg is clearly the one who comes across the best. Giving us some information that would better explain why O'Connor made the decisions and choices she did would help make it more evenly matched and a more rewarding play.
Fortunately, the cast, under Dana Resnick's crisp and clear direction, is superb. Laura Wernette and Eileen T'Kaye, as Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, respectively, don't attempt to mimic either woman, which is a major strength. But, with Kim Nolan's smart wig and make-up designs, both actresses look similar enough to the two famous justices. Wernette and T'Kaye do incredibly well in depicting both the power and uncertainty these women feel in their positions while also creating warm, funny, and realistic individuals.
Aaron Jackson's scenic design uses a few moving set pieces that resemble large bookcases to swiftly move us from one location to the next. The costumes by Connie Furr do a very good job of depicting the changing periods and varied design styles of the two women. Daniel Davisson's lighting is impressive in how it steers our focus and draws our attention to an appropriate area of the stage, something that is especially important in a two-person play in which many times there is just one actress on stage.
Shapiro's play gives background and understanding to these two famous women who, for many years, were both used to being the only woman in the room, yet for 13 years found themselves working together on the highest court in America. Depicting the idealist and the pragmatist who found a way to overcome their vast differences to make them both stronger individuals, forms an especially relevant lesson in our current derisive, political climate where it seems finding a common ground is virtually impossible. While it may have a few shortcomings, Sisters in Law is a warm, witty and ultimately moving document of the remarkable friendship between these two powerful women.
Sisters in Law, through April 28, 2019, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151
Written by Jonathan Shapiro, based on the book by Linda Hirshman
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.