PrideArts premieres a beautiful but flawed play about RBG

Photo by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography

The title of Sally Deering’s new play at PrideArts, When There Are Nine, refers to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s response when asked when she’d feel there were enough women on the Supreme Court. Ginsburg, of course, never saw that day, nor have any of us; President Biden’s Black female choice this spring will bring the Court to a record four women. However, neither that nor the fact that she spent an entire career in the minority could stop her from being one of the most discussed and influential justices of her era. And Deering’s play does focus on some of the highlights of her sparkling career…but even more it strips away the robes to let us see the woman beneath them. This is one of its great strengths…but it also might be a significant flaw.

Sharply directed by Sam Hess, When There Are Nine imagines a Ginsburg nearing the end of her life and contemplating the legacy she is leaving behind. It is structured as a dream/memory play, moving seamlessly in and out of important moments in Ginsburg’s life and career while its center remains in the home in which the 87-year-old justice, played by Talia Langman and cared for by a substitute nurse named Gabby (Nicholia Aguirre), reflects on what she has accomplished and what she was not able to, while her memories of her relationship with her husband Martin (Gabriel Estrada) are never far away.

Langman plays Ginsburg at multiple ages, from about 6 to 87, and—while she doesn’t really attempt to do much with the really young ages—does a fine job of portraying the future justice from her late teens onward, and there are some lovely instant age changes when Ginsburg’s dream fades away and she finds herself a very sick old woman once more. (Connor Sale’s lighting is very effective during these time/reality shifts.) Deering wants us to see how the passions and traumas in her life—losing a mother as a child, losing her husband, watching the ERA die and Roe v Wade succeed—made RBG who she was.

Deering, Hess, and Langman are most successful in the quieter moments—a waltz between Ruth and Martin, a deeply personal conversation with Gabby (where Aguirre is also totally wonderful), an introspective moment when Ginsburg sits alone at her desk surrounded by huge bags of mail she will never be able to read—but Hess finds ways to stage the noisier, more crowded scenes well too. The political rallies for the ERA and Roe tend to blend into each other, but they establish the young RBG’s fire and drive, which would make her such a great justice. Working with a talented ensemble of female performers, Hess shows us the critical role Ginsburg played in the women’s rights movement.

As Martin, Estrada is unfortunately one-note. His voice and actions forever remaining quiet, controlled, loving, and gentle, he fulfills the role of the dream-lover better than that of a flesh and blood man. That’s too bad: their love is clear, but it’s hard to see the passion in Ginsburg’s personal life to match that in her public one. Aguirre fares a bit better, but then Deering strangely gives her invented caregiver more depth than the love of RBG’s life, to whom she provides plenty of stage time.

Another odd choice is that Deering gives two long scenes—in fact, they comprise the bulk of the time allotted to Ginsburg’s later career—to an appeal request from a Texas woman on death row, whose letters are dramatized at length even though she really has no reasonable cause for the appeal. Perhaps intended to highlight the hopefulness that RBG instilled in women throughout America, it’s still strange that Deering selected this as a focus rather than any of RBG’s significant rulings, such as her scathing dissent to the Court’s decision to decimate the Voting Rights Act…or even her famous friendship with arch-conservative justice Antonin Scalia (whom we do meet briefly with three other deceased members of the Court in a fantasy afterlife scene).

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a 90-minute play to provide enough depth about a woman who was so much to so many people. But When There Are Nine, in attempting too much, fails to help us see how effective she was as a justice as well as a young crusader for women’s rights and a monumental symbol for women everywhere. It’s still a play I can recommend—its powerful coda, especially, is outstanding—but it could have been much more. It is playing through March 13 at PrideArts.

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