By Betsy Labiner
“I cheered at various points, felt rage so intense I clenched my jaw, and, during one song near the musical’s end, actually put my face in my hands to muffle how loudly I was sobbing.”
Lauren Gunderson’s new musical Justice at Arizona Theatre Company was — for me at least — an engaging experience of emotional extremes. I cheered at various points, felt rage so intense I clenched my jaw, and, during one song near the musical’s end, actually put my face in my hands to muffle how loudly I was sobbing. (On that last point, I probably needn’t have worried; my friend to the left of me was also audibly crying, as was a man in front of me and someone else several seats to my right.) The intensity of feeling is tied not only to the plot, but to the songs as well, which feature music written by Bree Lowdermilk and lyrics by Kait Kerrigan.
Justice explores the relationship between Justices Sandra Day O’Connor (played by Nancy Opel) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Joan Ryan), moving mostly chronologically through their time on the Supreme Court and the major cases on which they made rulings. Their story is presented through a frame narrative of a modern appointee’s Senate confirmation hearings. The appointee, Vera (played by Chanel Bragg), faces adversarial and even antagonistic questioning, which she knows she must face with absolute calm and professionalism. We see her navigating fraught political territory and recognize that the questions — unheard by the audience, but made clear by the context — that she is answering frequently have nothing to do with her credentials, but are instead seeking to undermine her on the basis of her gender, sexuality, and race.
Director Melissa Crespo kept the pacing tight, which worked well with the often snappy dialogue. The set (designed by Tanya Orellana) features a desk for each woman, at which she is seated for the majority of the play. The backdrop, however, is where much of the visual interest lies; projections provide exposition, explanation, visual cues, and photographs for historical and individual context to key moments. The projections (designed by Lisa Renkel) were a brilliant way to indicate shifts in socio-political sentiment, as well as help prod audience members’ memories of particular moments so that the dialogue never had to veer into didactic or overly-expository territory.
This musical is, as I said, emotionally gripping and varied. I felt helpless frustration, even fury, at court cases from over twenty years ago as well as at more recent decisions, but also hope and elation at the play’s reminders of the progress made. Justice does an excellent job of examining the women as real, flawed people, not just figures to hero-worship. It frankly discusses the mistakes and failures in the careers of O’Connor and Ginsburg, which paves the way for audiences to consider how we need to continually strive to do better even as we celebrate the good these women did in their lives and work.
All three actors gave compelling performances, but I particularly laud Bragg, whose rendition of “Dissent is Not Enough” moved me to tears (shortly before the next song, “The Mind Goes,” absolutely demolished me emotionally). She also did a beautiful job of shifting between Vera’s appearance of serenity and the reality of her underlying panic and doubt that the audience sees in moments of internal monologue. Vera is visually centered for the duration of the play, and Bragg held that space with ease. The banter and liveliness of Opel and Ryan was a delight to watch too, and I was impressed as well by the deftness with which they handled the more subdued, bleak moments for the Justices they portrayed.
I felt wrung out by the end of the play, but simultaneously energized. The closing moments of the play elicited a standing ovation from myself and fellow audience members even before the play had quite concluded. I am left in deep reflection on the workings of the court system and politics in the United States, particularly when it comes to the delivery and upholding of justice. I appreciate the prompting, particularly when it’s delivered with as much thoughtfulness as this play demonstrates. Go see Justice — it’s for all.
Justice is playing at ATC through April 30th. Tickets are available for purchase online at arizonatheatre.org or by calling the box office at 1-833-ATC-SEAT (1-833-282-7328). Masks are recommended but no longer required at ATC.