O’Connor and Ginsberg: This is the Story of “Sisters in Law”

Playwrights worth their salt know that compelling theater relies on worthy adversaries. Such is the enduring bond and equally enduring friction between the first two women nominated to the US Supreme Court.

Their relationship is the subject of Sisters in Law, now on stage through October 13 at the Wallis Center for the Arts. Based on a book by Linda Hirshman, Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning television writer Jonathan Shapiro does an excellent job framing the lives of these two formidable forces — bringing out the humor, but more importantly, getting to the heart of their differences.

Magnolias and Manhattan

Stephanie Faracy captures the steel magnolia strength of Texas-born conservative Sandra Day O’Connor, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981 by Ronald Reagan. O’Connor’s legal acumen, bolstered by conservative values and Southern grit, helped her navigate the male dominated bench.

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It took a dozen years for the next woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a New York Jew with passionate feminist leanings, couldn’t have been more different. Tovah Feldshuh, who plays Ginsburg, is no stranger to strong and stubborn icons, having played Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir both on stage and on screen.< Feldshuh is perfectly suited to the diminutive but opinionated force known as the Notorious RBG and presents a sharp contrast to Faracy’s genteel O’Connor.

Golden Girls on the Bench

Okay, so it’s not exactly The Golden Girls, but Sisters in Law does have its share of yucks and zingers. Which is what (thankfully) keeps the material from feeling like a PBS documentary. The ultimate “odd couple,” much of the comedy stems from the sheer contrast in their personalities and backgrounds.

Shapiro mines details that showcase the idiosyncrasies that keep these icons of justice human and relatable. The visual divide is captured on stage to comic effect with RBG at home reviewing O’Connor’s brief, while Sandra plays golf with her husband at the Country Club.

Just the same, Shapiro is quick to bring the focus back to the substantive issues before them: Ginsburg shares her utter disdain for O’Connor’s draft with the audience, then proceeds to adopt a complimentary tone in an effort to persuade O’Connor to make changes that hew closer to her own feminist leanings.

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Tortoise and the Hare

O’Connor tries to convince Ginsburg that lasting change comes slowly and incrementally, advocating the “slow and steady” path of the tortoise. Ginsburg takes issue with her approach and asserts that justice delayed is justice denied. Finally, and much to Ginsburg’s dismay, O’Connor announces her decision to retire in 2005 in order to care for her husband who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

In one of the more telling exchanges, RBG acknowledges their ability to find common ground during their shared time on the bench. But O’Connor points out that she was the one who crossed over to Ruth’s side, not vice versa. At its heart, the contention between these two forces of nature is one of pragmatism versus idealism. But despite their ideological divide, there remained a strong and abiding bond that transcended political differences. And certainly that seems all the more poignant in these politically charged times.

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Published by
Steve Gottfried
Tags: theater

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