by Rebecca Rudnyk
The Phoenix Theatre Company’s new mainstage show, Sisters in Law, based on the best selling book by Linda Hirshman, is an intimate look at the relationship between the first two women to serve on the US Supreme Court. Though they have very different ideologies, both Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are incredible pioneers, and the bond they built in the years they served together as justices is a compelling premise.
The time and place is certainly right. With the popularity of The Notorious RBG book, the CNN documentary RBG, and the recent On the Basis of Sex biopic, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has reached rock star status, complete with her own action figure and an occasional spot on SNL (portrayed by Kate McKinnon). And Sandra Day O’Connor is an Arizona icon, beloved by many and known by all. We are also in the midst of new women’s empowerment movement, in a deeply divided political atmosphere, so the themes resonate powerfully. This is the show’s world premiere, and doing it here and now was an exquisite choice.
The performances of both Eileen T’Kaye as Ginsberg and Laura Wernette as O’Connor are skilled and resonant. A show with only two actors can be quite difficult to pull off. Yet it feels larger, richer and more grandiose because the performances are so compelling. Each does a magnificent job of demonstrating the complexities of these brilliant women, who go through each day weighed down by the duty and drive that compels them to do the work only a rare few are capable of.
The script is well constructed, albeit somewhat redundant at moments in the beginning as it establishes motivations. The work provides important history lessons commingled with memorable jokes and moving monologues. It is heart-wrenching and uplifting. Both inspiring and gut-punching. Mutual respect is ever-present. It is clear that, through their differences of ideology and approach, the justices built strong rapport. As legends in their own rights. Fighting the battles they chose to fight, in the best way they knew how.
But to allow us to peer into so many of those private moments when they quarreled over decisions that impacted the lives of the entire population of the United States, allows us to understand that their differences were much more than superficial. The show is a near-constant battle between the two. As makes sense for brilliant visionaries who built their careers on their adept ability to argue. So the ending, while quite a powerful and cathartic wrap up, felt somewhat contrived. A dramatic shift in character dynamics. Almost too clean a break. But it is moving, and the idealist in me found a way to accept it as I wiped the tears from my eyes and stood in ovation of T’Kaye and Wernette.
Sisters In Law is a 90 minute ode to the capability of women, the American judiciary, and the bonds we build with others through the lessons they teach us. It will appeal to lawyers, millennials, history buffs and anyone who truly appreciates great acting. I suggest it for a date night, a night out with the girls, and for parents to take their teenagers to for a learning session wrapped inside an entertaining package. In the playbill, Mala Blomquist has a Q&A article with the playwright Jonathan Shapiro and his response to the last question, regarding the show’s key takeaway, sums things up perfectly: “Women in Power handle power in ways that should make us all want more women in power.”
Sisters In Law is playing at The Phoenix Theatre Company through April 28. Tickets can be purchased online from the theatre’s website. I did several searches for tickets and every night, whether early or late in the run, and whether weeknight or weekend, was already pretty well sold. So I suggest getting them soon, as it just may sell out as word of mouth spreads.