'Sisters in Law': Theater Review

Sisters in Law - Publicity - H 2019
Kevin Parry
All head, no heart.

Tovah Feldshuh and Stephanie Faracy portray pioneering Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor, respectively, in this stage adaptation of the best-selling book by Linda Hirshman.

A conundrum of the #MeToo era is that even while women are being empowered with agency, they're still making only 79 cents on the dollar compared to men, reproductive rights are being quietly scaled back and a Supreme Court justice with sexual assault charges leveled against him was seated without a thorough investigation. Such contradictions make the timing right for Sisters in Law, the two-hander starring Tovah Feldshuh and Stephanie Faracy as pioneering Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor, respectively. For 95 minutes, they spar over issues like sexual harassment, strip searches and patriarchal condescension, offering strong performances despite uneven writing. 

Projection designer Yee Eun Nam's vintage photos of women protesters mix with icons like Angela Davis and Amelia Earhart in a video backdrop that sets the tone before O'Connor takes the stage. The Supreme Court's first female justice welcomes the second, Ginsburg, encouraging her to vie for the powerful position of swing vote, a suggestion that makes an idealogue like Ginsburg bristle.  

The two relitigate one of the latter's landmark cases from 1975, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, in which Ginsburg advocated for a widower who was denied survivor benefits under Social Security, which allowed widows caring for children, but not widowers in the same position, to collect benefits. Ginsburg argued that the statute discriminated on the basis of sex, turning a case on behalf of a man into a powerful victory for women's rights.

In one of the first major decisions carried by O'Connor and Ginsburg, a sexual harassment case from 1994, Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., they land on the same side of the issue, but differ on specifics. Ginsburg sees it as a gender equality case, but O'Connor admonishes, "When it comes to gender equality, even liberal men are in no big hurry."

O'Connor retired four years before the 2009 Merida case, in which a 13-year-old girl was strip-searched at school because administrators thought she was hiding aspirin in her underwear. Ginsburg was so upset by the attitude of male justices David Hackett Souter and John Roberts that, in an unprecedented move, she called in an interview to USA Today while the case was still under deliberation. "They have never been a 13-year-old girl," she said. "It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I don't think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood." In the end, she prevailed.

Back and forth go O'Connor and Ginsburg over legal questions, with the principal conflict boiling down to a choice of slow and steady versus fast and aggressive. No doubt playwright Jonathan Shapiro, working from Linda Hirshman's 2015 best-seller of the same title, would claim the play is a political Rorschach test, but it isn't. O'Connor is portrayed as the immovable object, setting a glacial pace toward progress, while Ginsburg is the irresistible force more or less given the final word on the subject: "Justice delayed is justice denied." 

With her aerobics and her golf, O'Connor is not necessarily made to look foolish, just obtuse. Faracy, who began her career appearing opposite Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait, plays O'Connor with the look of a midcentury astronaut's wife from Arizona, one wily enough to wield power in a man’s world without ruffling too many feathers. 

Feldshuh is known to TV viewers as Danielle Melnick on Law and Order and Deanna Monroe on The Walking Dead, but on the stage she’s a four-time Tony nominee and winner of multiple theater awards for best actress. She gives us the Ginsburg we know, hunched and unapologetic in a nasally tone, adamant and heartfelt in defense of her principles, cunning and convincing in her arguments, as well as respectful and sincere in her friendship. 

A gritty, salt-of-the-earth social warrior from the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn, Ginsburg remains idealistic, proclaiming, "The law is not a follower, it's a leader!," which ignores the fact that it took demonstrations in the streets to get the courts to act on women's suffrage, civil rights, gay marriage and many other common-sense ideas. The play teaches us that justice is not only blind but a little deaf, too, in that judges sitting on the far left or right of the bench have a harder time hearing arguments. 

In the end, at an event to honor the 30th anniversary of O'Connor's appointment, the two old friends bond in what's meant to be an emotional moment in a play that is essentially emotion-free. Sisters in Law's greatest deficiency is that it's all head and no heart. And even then, the heady stuff is not always as smart as it thinks it is. 

Emotional content underpinning conflict will often drive creative choices on the stage. Without it, director Patricia McGregor (Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole, Skeleton Crew) is presented with options limited to stand and deliver or sit and wade through reams of text that, if mishandled, might narcotize the audience. Unfortunately, even at a mere 90-minute running time, the production cuts it a little close.  

It's hard to imagine Hirshman's book was crying out to be turned into a play by first-time dramatist Shapiro, who happens to be a Peabody Award-winning writer-producer with credits on numerous TV series, notably with David E. Kelley. He is also a lawyer, a fact that may make him seem more qualified but ultimately fails to galvanize Sisters in Law.

Venue: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills
Cast: Stephanie Faracy, Tovah Feldshuh
Director: Patricia McGregor
Playwright: Jonathan Shapiro, based on the book by Linda Hirshman
Set designer: Rachel Myers
Costume designer: Melissa Trn
Lighting designer: Leigh Allen
Sound designer: Cricket Myers
Projection designer: Yee Eun Nam
Presented by The Wallis, in association with Elizabeth Weber, Dale Franzen, Don Franzen