Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
In these radically different times, Arena has brought The Originalist back to where it began, though now it's being performed in the Kreeger Theater rather than the almost living-room size Kogod Cradle. Happily, the play remains vital and engaging, Molly Smith's direction ably plays up the conflicts and skims over the occasional contrivances, and Edward Gero's magisterial performance has deepened with time. (Arena co-produced this version with Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, and the Pasadena Playhouse, with a Chicago run to follow.)
Strand wrote the role of Scalia for Gero, a dynamic actor who has received four Helen Hayes Awards during a career of both classic and contemporary worksand who also resembles the late justice. He dominates the action with his slightly hunched posture, his acid wit, his smug confidence in his own judgment, and his view of constitutional law as something close to a religious vocation. (Just as Scalia believes the U.S. Constitution is a monument rather than a document open to interpretation, he prefers his Catholic observance in Latin.)
The play pits Scalia against Cat (Jade Wheeler), an outspoken liberal African-American lawyer who becomes his law clerk; he hires people with whom he disagrees, he says, because "it reminds me of how right I am." The time is 2012-2013, as the Supreme Court was about to take up the Windsor case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, which opened the door to legal same-sex marriage.
Strand lightens the polemical moments with scenes showing the "backstage" Scalia: he takes Cat to a shooting range, chats with her about his love of opera, and shares impolitic moments from his past (for example, saying that a former president "reminded me of a stuffed animal"). However, the playwright also stacks the deck with a third character (Brett Mack), a former classmate of Cat's who is everything she isn't: a conservative white man who lacks Scalia's underpinnings of rectitude, who enjoys picking away at her arguments and her self-esteem.