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The Life and Times Of a Great Man of Law: Oliver Wendell Holmes

THE depiction of Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in ''The Magnificent Yankee,'' at Washington's historic Ford's Theatre, is a refreshing departure from unflattering portrayals of today's public servants.

The Emmet Lavery play, first staged on Broadway in 1947, is a throwback to a time when the nation expected integrity and leadership rather than expediency and brinkmanship from officials.

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Calling himself ''a missionary from Boston'' upon his arrival in Washington in 1902, the Supreme Court's newest associate justice warned that he would not swing with the shift in power politics.

''Yes, Roosevelt gets things done,'' the play has Holmes say of Theodore Roosevelt, the president who appointed him. ''Trouble is, he doesn't care how.''

Despite expectations from the White House that Holmes would rule in favor of Roosevelt's pro-labor position in a test case for the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Holmes ignored the pressure and dissented.

We soon learn that he was stridently independent in his view of the law, devoted in his later years to his wife, Fanny, and a father figure to his succession of clerks.

Holmes, played by James Whitmore, cuts a dashing figure. His world comes alive with the help of actress Audra Lindley, who portrays Fanny as a witty and spirited woman.

Lavery's play is as much a love story as it is an account of the last 30 years of the Supreme Court justice's life.

Director Peter Hunt makes the most of the dynamic between Whitmore and his leading lady. Their repartee on subjects ranging from choosing a house to struggles within the court demonstrates the value Holmes placed on his wife's opinions.

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The play, by focusing on his later life, presupposes that the audience is familiar with Holmes's earlier womanizing. Lavery only hints at this in a scene where Fanny sniffs a scented envelope her husband receives in the mail.

The playwright overdoes the Holmeses' ardent support for Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to be nominated to the Supreme Court during a time of strong anti-Semitism. If biographers are to be believed, the play exaggerates the extent of the couple's support. History shows that Fanny was disdainful of Brandeis, and did not welcome him into her home until Holmes was quite elderly.

A basic flaw exists in ''The Magnificent Yankee.'' While we are told that Holmes was a legendary figure in American law, little is presented about the substance and import of his work.

When Holmes embarked on his Supreme Court career, the court was judging many state laws unconstitutional because they did not meet the justices' interpretations of ''the due process of law.'' Holmes, a purist, was uncomfortable with such judicial license, insisting instead that judges have no right to interfere in states' experimentation with social legislation unless it violates the Constitution. He became known as the Great Dissenter.

Above all, he demanded that the court examine the facts in a society in flux, rather than adhere to long-accepted ideas. He prevailed upon his colleagues to prevent their own opinions from affecting their decisions. His approach - the so-called doctrine of judicial restraint - has become the beacon of judicial thought.

Holmes once reveled in ''the secret isolated joy of the thinker, who knows that, a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten, men who never heard of him will be moving to the measures of his thought.'' This play only begins to show why.

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