By Lisa Lyons
Whether you loved him or hated him, no one could deny the powerful influence that Justice Antonin Scalia held over the Supreme Court since his appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Always a polarizing figure with an incisive mind, savage wit and superlative writing skills, Scalia delivered many dissents that will be remembered for generations to come.
Before Scalia’s unexpected death in February 2016, playwright John Strand had written “The Originalist,” a one act that paid tribute to the legendary jurist and his dedication to interpreting the Constitution of the United States as the Founding Fathers wrote it, not open to modern re-interpretation. The “dead” versus “living” document status of the Constitution has been debated for decades, but never so passionately proclaimed as in those scathing dissents by Scalia.
Set against the backdrop of the 2012-13 Supreme Court session, the play focuses on the esteemed jurist (magnificently portrayed by Edward Gero) and his brash and brainy social-leaning law clerk Cat (Jade Wheeler), who relishes playing devil’s advocate to the Justice – and Brad (Bret Mack), another clerk with decidedly Federalist Society leanings who seeks to impress the Justice with his own originalist ideas.
The show opens with an operatic aria playing as Scalia addresses a law school graduate class and answers questions from the audience. His scripted remarks are interrupted not once but several times by a young woman who will not be silenced: it is Cat, who informs him that she has just applied to be his summer law clerk. Egads!
Their subsequent interview for the clerkship doesn’t go well, with the combative tone being set from the start but, despite his irritation, one can see something in this young black woman’s grasp of facts and assertive tone has resonated with him. He hires her as his new “sparring partner” and sounding board, while Cat is seeking both insight into the man she calls a “monster” as well as a potential mentor.
The crux of the play’s plot – whether Cat will be able to insert her own personal beliefs into the opinions that Scalia permits her to draft for a controversial case – comes to a head when jealous Brad “outs” Cat as a lesbian and raises the possibility that her sexual orientation will prove an embarrassment to the Justice in the aforementioned action. That is because the dissent is a landmark case, United States v. Windsor which aimed to overturn the federal ban on same sex marriage. As a devout Catholic and constitutional purist, Scalia’s antipathy toward gay marriage and refusal to acknowledge homosexuality as a legitimate identity, was well documented.
The personal pasts of both Scalia and Cat are introduced in separate vignettes, designed to show perhaps the areas in which they are very much alike; but since the play is based on a real person who was notorious for protecting his privacy, it takes a huge leap of faith to believe that these conversations would have occurred. However, if you can suspend your disbelief and just let yourself get lost in the glorious world of words, you will be treated to an evening of superlative theater.
Director Molly Smith orchestrates this 95-minute chamber piece, ably balancing the operatic crescendos of Scalia’s personality with the counterpoint of the two clerks, one strident, the other thoughtful. She is helped by her talented cast, particularly Edward Gero who not only resembles Scalia, but has captured his overlooked charm that was obscured by his often acerbic personality. Gero had the good fortune to observe Scalia in the court as well as at dinner and was able to slip into many of his mannerisms and expressions. He never makes a mockery of the man who described himself as a “monster” in the eyes of the liberal left and a hero to the conservative right.
The character of Cat is tricky to pull off as she is an obvious device to raise the important questions that drive the play forward. It takes a subtle and intense performer to make it work and while Jade Wheeler’s projection and intent was fine, she didn’t seem truly comfortable in Cat’s skin. Some line deliveries and body positions seemed awkward and unsure, which I don’t think was Smith or Wheeler’s intent. Bret Mack has a thankless role of the smarmy Brad, but he does his best to make him more than a comic book baddie.
Kudos to the simple, classic stage design by Misha Kachman; it evokes the operatic motif of red velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers, creating both the solemnity of the judicial chambers and the awe-inspiring expanse of a Catholic cathedral. Lighting design by Colin K. Bills, costume design by Joseph P. Salasovich, and sound design of Eric Shimelonis completes the technically-excellent creative team.
According to sources, Justice Scalia never did see the original 2015 Arena Stage production in Washington DC, due to his concern that an appearance at the event might be construed as an endorsement of the portrayed incidents or a potential conflict of interest. Shame, because I think he would have been pleased with Gero’s respectful homage to him. However, I think he would be indignant at Strand’s suggestion that he lusted after the Chief Justice position (eventually filled by John Roberts); his guilt and remorse over his role in that drama was Shakespearean according to the play, but we’ll never know the truth of that. “The Originalist” does however show us that he was a brilliant man who was a true original to the end of his life.
“The Originalist” runs through May 7 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Drive in Old Town Pasadena. More information and tickets can be obtained through the Box Office or online at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.