Review: In St. Pete, freeFall Theatre stages enthralling narrative of trailblazing jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Be uplifted by this play and vote like our democracy hangs in the balance.

click to enlarge Michelle Azar, wearing Devon Renee Spencer's wardrobe, which captures Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's style from flowing robes, to a royal blue power suit. - c/o FreeFall Theatre
c/o FreeFall Theatre
Michelle Azar, wearing Devon Renee Spencer's wardrobe, which captures Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's style from flowing robes, to a royal blue power suit.
As the lights rise on the Supreme Court chambers of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we see the diminutive judge behind her spacious wooden desk bedecked with shiny antique brass pulls. The high backed, tufted leather chair practically swallows Michelle Azar, who is instantly recognizable in RBG’s black robes and lace collar, which brought long overdue feminine energy to the court. But as she speaks, out flow the soft spoken pursed, closed-mouth vowels of Ginsburg’s native Brooklyn. RBG lives, and for 90 compelling minutes we’re taken on a feminist judicial roller coaster ride. The superb Azar and director, Laley Lippard, are in firm control of the enthralling narrative of a trailblazing jurist.

freeFall Theatre, and artistic director Eric Davis, have a real feather in their cap launching this world premiere tour headed for New York with dreams of Broadway. Playwright Rupert Holmes frames his uplifting play as an “interview” with one of her granddaughters’ friends. Ginsburg reflects on the Sisyphean struggles faced by women of her generation from the age of this unseen teen. Holmes is best known for his multiple Tony-winning musical based on Dickens’ unfinished novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” He first gained fame as a storytelling songwriter with the familiar “Escape (the Piña Colada Song),” and a less familiar tune, “The People That You Never Get to Love.” Check out Nancy LaMott’s version online.
The physical production is first rate. Tom Hanson’s set is dominated by fluted uplit columns with dramatic lighting by Dalton Hamilton working in tandem with Mike Billings video and TJ O’Leary’s sound to keep the action fluid and arresting. Devon Renee Spencer captures RBG’s style from flowing robes, to a royal blue power suit, to workout gear for her famous exercise program which left Stephen Colbert defeated.

We follow RBG from being enthralled by Nancy Drew, to being one of only nine female law students at Harvard, raising a daughter and helping her beloved husband, Martin, battle cancer. There’s an extended section looking at the pioneers of woman’s rights beginning with Susan B. Anthony, where her chambers’ cubist paintings and books morph into 1970’s feminist icons Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, dismissed by chauvinism as strident and shrill-sounding feminists caricatured as whining voices of ear-aching complainers. But then we embrace Tina Turner and Beyoncé as symbols. There’s also a corollary to the parallel civil rights struggles where Jackie Robinson and Sidney Poitier broke barriers due to their immense talents, but still remained tokens—often to be patronized.

Likewise, after graduating first in her class, RBG finds there are no jobs. She has three strikes against her: she’s Jewish, a woman, and the real killer—the mother of a four-year-old. She’s rejected as a clerk for Felix Frankfurter, who holds the SCOTUS scholars’ seat (read Jewish) on the court. Even Marty finds prejudice, but he’s chosen tax/finance law, where it’s OK to be Jewish thanks to Shylock stereotypes. A particularly interesting sequence is when Ruth and Marty get to work together and triumph. “Sex, like race, is a visible, immutable characteristic bearing no relationship to ability,” Ginsburg says.

RBG is to women's rights, what Thurgood Marshall is to civil rights. “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren in is that they take their feet off our necks,” Ginsburg adds, quoting the words of Sarah Moore Grimké, a 19th century abolitionist and women’s rights activist

Finally cases come to her like candy to Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory and after a distinguished career she is appointed by President Clinton, who says, “Quite simply, what's in her record speaks volumes about what is in her heart.”

But, as the court turned right, RBG became famous for her dissents, which planted her keen insights firmly in the record for future legal arguments. RBG was also famously an opera devotee, and there’s a wonderfully conceived theatrical sequence about Madame Butterfly and raising a child.

As a cis, white, male boomer, I came of age riding a wave of power which I did nothing to earn. That was just the post war status quo. So marching for and expecting full and equal rights for others regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation just seems like the only intellectually honest way to live. But I can’t help but think RBG would be in a state of perpetual dissent over the collapse of conservatism and, with the exception of Liz Cheney, the lack of courage in the face of blatant hypocrisy. How with overwhelming, unrefuted evidence and 60-plus failed court cases, can anyone still believe in the “big lie” surrounding the 2020 election? Ten-percent of Americans now believe that political violence is inevitable.

What are we to do following the unprecedented move to steal a lifetime SCOTUS seat by denying Merrick Garland? And then, the Federalist Society puts three justices on the court who lie about the “stare decisis” precedent of Roe vs. Wade. Despite now having four female justices and, finally, a Black woman in the presence of Justice Jackson, the court seems determined to roll back rights which upheld the equality of all citizens quoting 19th Century precedents. Perhaps, we can take a nod from Mr. Holmes’ musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and choose an ending at the ballot box in favor of democracy over authoritarianism.

Be uplifted by this play and vote like our democracy hangs in the balance.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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