Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
If The Great Society is huge, The Originalist is small, three characters, and can be managed by much smaller regional theater companies. The play focuses on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who is just now being replaced after his 2015 death. He was controversial, the intellectual leader of the conservative wing of the court and a major influence on Justice Clarence Thomas and others. His judicial philosophy, which the play attempts to clarify, was to decide cases as he thought the original framers of the U.S. Constitution would have. As such, I have almost always been at loggerheads with his opinions.
Playwright Strand uses a black, liberal lesbian, applying to be and becoming one of Scalia's four clerks as a framing device. The two square off over issues coming before the Supreme Court to illuminate Scalia's mind set. After viewing this play, I came away with a better understanding of the man's written opinions, mostly descents.
The Originalist was first produced at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. with Edward Gero in title role, and he plays Justice Scalia here, as well. Mr. Gero bears a striking physical resemblance to Scalia, and plays him much more kindly than his scathing opinions might suggest. This comes mostly from the script, which is quite sympathetic to the man. Jade Wheeler plays Cat, his sparing partner. The character as written is largely built from stereotypes, so it becomes very hard to give a nuanced performance, but Ms. Wheeler does a fine job. Rounding out the cast is Asolo Conservatory third year student Brett Mack as Brad, brought in from Heritage Foundation (a real conservative think tank) to assist Cat and Justice Scalia on the Edie Windsor case, which found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, despite Scalia's withering descent. (An amusing note: Mr. Mack plays Bobbie Kennedy in The Great Society, in repertory with this play.)
Molly Smith's directing is solid. A play that is largely built on conflicting ideologies needs a sharp director to keep it in focus and interesting, which Ms. Smith does very well. Scenic design by Misha Kachman is lavish, necessary for a rather intimate play to work in the 500 seat Mertz theater. Costume design by Joseph P. Salasovich allows for a large collection of ties for Justice Scalia and a changing wardrobe for Cat. Lighting design by Colin K. Bills is effective. The usual Asolo staff members contribute to make this a fine production.
The Originalist is a perfect fit for the company's final season of "The American Character." It is lively, intellectually stimulating theater.
Asolo Repertory Theatre presents The Originalist through March 7, 2017, at the Mertz Theatre in the FSU Center. 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, Florida. Box Office 941-351-8000. For more information visit www.asolorep.org
Cast:(in order of Appearance)
Directed by Molly Smith