CURTAIN CALLS: ‘The Originalist’ – A Supreme Interpretation

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as Cat in The Originalist, which runs through Aug. 6 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.
Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

For one hour and forty-five minutes, Justice Antonin Scalia comes to life, full of anecdotes, answers, opinions, and humor. He fields legal questions with the ease of a tennis champ on a court with beginners, and he takes his victories – and his losses – with the equanimity of the war-weary. He’s a textualist, a purist, a Constitutional originalist. A “medieval knight girded for battle” to some. A “monster” to others.

John Strand’s play, “The Originalist” written for Arena Stage and first presented just months before Justice Scalia died in 2016 is back from its triumphant tour for a limited engagement.  Scalia was himself something of a one-man show, and stripped down to fighting weight, “The Originalist” feels like a one-man show – but with three actors.

Ed Gero in the role of Justice Scalia is not just a remarkable impersonation. He is a doppelganger, a transformation. The voice, the walk, the gestures, the pauses – yes, that’s what good actors do, but this is something else. It’s the spirit of Scalia, and it’s astonishing.

Strand’s device for bringing Scalia to the front is to pitch him against an ambitious young Harvard Law School honor grad, an African-American woman, a liberal (the “flaming” kind), and a lesbian. For those qualities, and more (she’s also a Catholic), Scalia takes her on to be his clerk, the lucky choice from among thousands who submit their hopeful applications every year. Cat (Jade Wheeler) has mastered the art of respectful antagonism, knows where the line is between serious inquiry and spirited baiting, and then sets one toe – and then a foot – over it.

Their crossed swords give her side (the left) a chance to question his rulings, but in a welcome bit of third dimension, Cat is continually seeking a middle ground, a place where the two sides can meet, if not in agreement, perhaps in understanding. Scalia, for his part, has ample opportunity to explain the Constitutional basis for his decisions and does so with the sharpened weapons of his outrage and wit. We, an absorbed audience, learn something.

Not all good ideas make good law.  When the Constitution does not address an issue in any form, the Justices should not rule on it. They did anyway, of course, in spite of his many dissents that were “written as if they’re about to catch fire.”  Infuriated class action groups called him a “bigot” a “homophobe” and worse – non-arguments that fail to address the law and are, as name-calling so often is, as persuasive as a playground taunt. Scalia persevered. His love for the First Amendment sometimes demanded rulings that he hated, but he made them nevertheless.

The third character in “The Originalist” is something of a sop to the left. Brett Mack is Brad, the law clerk who was once president of the Young Republicans at Harvard where Cat styled herself a socialist. Brad is everything the Young Democrats would have him be – geeky, intolerant, spiteful, and even more self-righteous than his ideological opponents.  His real purpose seems to be to give Gero a break from the stage, to hector Cat with her privileged minority status, and temporarily at least, give Cat the rational high ground. It is the weakest scene in an otherwise powerful play.

Set design by Misha Kachman and lights by Colin Bills find strength in sublime minimalism. The slightly thrust, blank stage with single spotlight needs only Justice Scalia to fill it with his personality as he lectures law students.  Curtains part, and a majestic desk dominates the spare office where vigorous discussions of legal principle and Founders’ intentions overrule ornamentation.

Directed by Molly Smith, “The Originalist” is unique in its fair, though not always impartial, study of one of the great, controversial Jurists of our time.  Red and blue designations fade with a closer understanding of how devotion to the Constitution as North Star and not “living document” informed Justice Scalia’s opinions. Audience members may also come away with a better understanding of why Justice Keegan called him “one of the most important Justices ever, and also one of the greatest.”

 

Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.

WANT TO GO?

What: “The Originalist”

Where:  Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, D.C.

Call (202) 554-9066 or visit www.arenastage.org

Playing through Aug. 6

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