Not so much for an associate Supreme Court Justice, but for Edward Gero, the man currently embodying the late Antonin Scalia in the remounted and revised production of The Originalist at Arena Stage.
Don’t worry, I’ll get to Scalia, the play and Gero’s co-stars in a moment, but what really struck me about The Originalist is the depth of experience Gero brings to the character of Scalia, a touchstone figure in American judicial politics. I would imagine most readers here would be familiar with the DC-based actors list of credits, going back to Michael Kahn’s early days at Folger Shakespeare Theatre to more recent productions at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Roundhouse, Studio Theatre, and his tenure as Scrooge in Ford’s A Christmas Carol. He has portrayed other historical figures such as Richard Nixon and volatile modern artist Mark Rothko.
I recount this brief CV of Gero’s work to illustrate all the gifts he brings to his current role, Antonin Scalia. Playwright John Strand has given Gero quite a map to follow – a play that mirrors Scalia’s wit and strong convictions. This performance has also been honed by two other productions following the 2015 Arena Stage showing: Pasadena Playhouse and the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Florida. Watching Gero onstage from his first entrance, giving a lecture to the Kreeger Theatre audience standing in for the Federalist Society, I felt as if I were not only at a finely tuned and sharpened play performance, but at a masterclass in acting.
Gero paints his Scalia in a combination of subtle strokes and broad splashes, but using the bolder choices sparingly to great effect. The sheer joy Gero’s Scalia has in comparing traditional Italian opera and his beloved Constitution is crystal clear. This moment, and many others, are supported by the gorgeous sound design featuring some of operas greatest hits by Eric Shimelonis.
Plainspoken and down to earth while maintaining an air of charming superiority seems like a tall order, but Gero hits bullseye after bullseye enlivening Scalia’s complexities – from Constitutional evangelist to cheeky showman. Some of Gero’s best moments come when he underplays a line or using a protracted pause to allow for his facial expressions to say everything. But he doesn’t shortchange Strand’s strong text either, especially in the section where he describes how close he came to becoming Chief Justice at William Rehnquist’s sudden death.
closes August 6, 2017
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In a most political town with a sophisticated audience, the legendary associate justice known for his 100 percent strict adherence to the Constitution, not as a living document, but as it was written and intended to be followed by the founders is well known. Strand’s play, just as in the 2015 premiere at Arena, pits Scalia with a young, Black female law clerk who happens to sit on the complete opposite side of the justice on every issue, bar none. Scalia chooses her to be one of his clerks after an extended and game-like interview that lays out their touchy working relationship. “Every once in a while, it’s nice to have a liberal around,” Scalia playfully tells Cat, played by Jade Wheeler. Cat’s sense of humor and her willingness to spar with him sways him. At first, she thinks of him as “a bully but brilliant.”
Wheeler, who happens to be a former student of Gero’s from George Mason University where he is an associate professor of theater, more than holds her own with her sparring partner. Cat’s strong, progressive convictions are rendered with clarity, and Wheeler has obviously learned a thing or two about comic timing and underplaying from her mentor. During a visit to her dying father, Cat talks about meeting the “monster in the middle” and this is the ground on which she hopes to face Scalia. As she begins her time as Scalia’s clerk, the justice poses a question to Cat: “Do you believe a law clerk can have a significant influence on the decisions of a Supreme Court justice?” He does not let her answer the question then, but as the play continues this question looms, just as the question of how much Cat might change from being around Scalia – including sharpening her marksmanship skills during scenes on a shooting range.
Beginning with comments about Affirmative Action at the opening lecture, Scalia and Cat wrangle with “Roe v. Wade” and abortion, gun rights and the Second Amendment; these rounds culminate in working on Scalia’s vigorous dissent on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) decision in 2013. A flaming liberal clerk helping to draft the arch-conservative’s opposition to the Supreme Court’s striking down of DOMA? This is what makes for compelling drama, folks.
To makes things a little more interesting, a Scalia-worshipping clerks is also assigned to drafting the famous DOMA dissent, who happens to be one of Cat’s law school chums. Perhaps chum should be nemesis, since they are even more opposite each other than Cat is from Scalia. Brad, played by Brett Mack, is written and presented in much broader strokes than the main characters. One gets the sense Strand wanted to show not only the faction of young conservatives who thought of Scalia as a messiah, but to show point out how we stand as a nation – deeply divided and far from finding a middle ground.
The legal machinations and professional conflicts are tempered with glimpses into Cat’s personal life – a dying father, her sexual orientation – which allows her to have a deeper relationship with the “monster” Scalia. The justice ends up revealing a paternal heart when Cat faces personal tragedy, and is shown to have a willingness to meet her in the middle, not on matters of the Constitution, but of the soul. This relationship is handled with delicate pathos by two masterful performances.
Director Molly Smith, having a chance to tweak her original work, along with Strand’s tightening of the script, keeps the staging fluid and simple, allowing the characters to shine forth. Using the expanded Kreeger Stage, after starting two years ago in the Kogod Cradle, Smith’s set designer uses the intimacy of the larger venue maintain focus on Scalia and company with sparse but impressive set piece – a desk and some chairs, a bold red curtain, and (for certain scenes) a gun range. All these are punctuated by Colin K. Bills stylish lighting design.
If you come to The Originalist as a conservative or as a liberal, I think you will see Strand really doesn’t take sides. His play works to show how two humans with more in common than they first realize can find a level playing field, no matter what their political leanings are. And, I think, at least for this fictionalized depiction of one of the most polarizing figures of the last 50 years, I grew to like the man a little more, even if I feel strongly against many of his decisions.
The Originalist by John Strand . Directed by Molly Smith . Featuring Edward Gero, Jade Wheeler, Brett Mack . Set design: Misha Kachman . Costume design: Joseph Salasovich . Lighting design: Colin K. Bills . Sound design: Eric Shimelonis . Stage manager: Jana Lynn . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.