Theater Review (Washington, D.C.): Special Performances of ‘The Originalist’ at Arena Stage

In July 2012, I won a ticket lottery during my summer internship on Capitol Hill. The speaker slated at the closing lecture was the late Justice Antonin Scalia. To my surprise, Scalia devoted his hour to Q&A time rather than to a prepared speech.

Photo of Edward Gero and Kerry Warren in 'The Originalist'

(L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Kerry Warren as Cat in The Originalist at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 6-April 26, 2015. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I was struck by a couple of things about Antonin Scalia as I sat in the Supreme Court. He was very polite. Second, he seemed genuinely excited that all of us were interested in government and law, regardless of our backgrounds. He was also quite passionate about looking at the original meanings and contexts within the U.S. Constitution. “I am a textualist. I am an originalist. I am not a nut!” he exclaimed to us.

What I had observed about Scalia came to mind when I attended a special performance of The Originalist in Washington, D.C. The Arena Stage partnered with L.A. Theatre Works (LATW) to bring back the play for two days last month. The performance was recorded in the style of classic radio and will be given to high schools.

In this political drama by John Strand, Scalia (Edward Gero) takes on Cat (Kerry Warren), his new clerk at the Supreme Court. Even though she is a staunch liberal and finds Scalia annoying at times, Cat has a genuine desire to try to understand her new boss. These exchanges are insightful, funny, and poignant throughout as they discuss their beliefs. Cat’s clerkship draws a lot of criticism from all sides, including zealous conservative clerk Brad (Harlan Work).

Photo of Edward Gero as Justice Scalia

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 6-April 26, 2015. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The scenes between Brad and Cat are the weakest in the play because the tension feels forced. The negativity of young liberals is filtered to audiences through Cat’s recitation of her Facebook-wall comments. It could be construed as softening the liberal attack, compared to the food fight with Brad. Young conservatives, as embodied by Brad, are also portrayed as hardly more than pompous, status-hungry adulators. One could rattle off a list of names of individuals of various political affiliations who fit those characteristics.

My criticism encompasses one small part of the play, however, because I loved The Originalist. Edward Gero, a four-time Helen Hayes Award winner, really does resemble Scalia. On one of their meetings, Scalia called Gero “the doppelganger.” Gero effortlessly captures Scalia’s demeanor and manner of speaking, which piqued my interest and grabbed my focus from his opening lines. Kerry Warren was an excellent casting choice, because her strength and passion as the fictional left-winger Cat balances so well against Gero’s Scalia.

Photo of Edward Gero and Kerry Warren

(L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Kerry Warren as Cat in The Originalist at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 6-April 26, 2015. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The dialogue between them, though heavy on legal terminology, is not hard to follow. I felt challenged and engaged by the debates that unfolded from scene to scene, whether the characters were playing cards, at the shooting range, or preparing for court. Audiences will get a good sense of Scalia’s views about law, the Constitution, and some court cases. Only a smartly crafted script could excel at taking on a controversial figure like Scalia.

After the play, NPR’s Nina Totenberg moderated a discussion with actor Edward Gero, SCOTUSblog co-founder Tom Goldstein, and former Scalia clerk Tara Kole. The panel shared stories about Scalia’s tenure in the Court, his writing, and what he might have thought about his own legacy. The interview will be airing on radio stations across the country.

Scalia never saw The Originalist during its D.C. run. “He wrote me a lovely dissent,” remarked Gero.

If you’re interested in seeing The Originalist, you can attend a performance at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, starting in January 2017. There are also talks underway to make a film adaptation. Here’s a great video from PBS about the play.


This article was first published, with the same title, on Blogcritics.org.

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