Whatever Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was like on the bench or writing dissenting opinions, by all accounts he was someone who could also be quite charming and entertaining. That’s the side of him we see most in John Strand’s play The Originalist, now onstage at Asolo Rep, although we also glimpse his toughness and his lifelong insistence on reading the United States Constitution exactly as it was written—no folderol about it being a living document for him. For the opera-loving justice, the constitution is another composition where “the notes are the notes.” And woe betide those trying to adopt an interpretation of it to fit the 21st century.
We first meet Strand’s Scalia (Edward Gero, who simply inhabits the role, written with him in mind) holding forth before a group of law students. One of them, a young black woman named Cat (Jade Wheeler) is annoyingly persistent in her questioning of him. Turns out that not only is she a “flaming liberal,” she actually wants to clerk for him—in the fragile hope she might have at least some small influence on changing his conservative bent on issues such as affirmative action or same-sex marriage rights.
Cat is a fiction, but she’s a stand-in for those in the audience who might want to argue with Scalia’s opinions. And it’s plausible that someone like Scalia might want a “counter clerk,” to present arguments for the other side that will, as he puts it, “remind me of how right I am.”
So, much of the play involves dialogue between the two about legal cases, especially the 2013 U.S. v. Windsor case that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). But there are also occasions when Scalia and Cat meet out of the court, as human beings, as when he teaches her how to shoot, or learns about her ill father, who provided much of Cat’s inspiration for attending law school.
We’re willing to believe that a friendship of sorts might form between two such different souls, and that gives us hope that other citizens of a divided country might find some ground on which to meet, civilly.
There is a third character in the piece, a conservative Republican former classmate of Cat’s (Brett Mack) who resents that she got the clerkship someone like him should have had. His appearance on the scene ratchets up the tension as the Windsor case comes to the fore, and he and Cat nearly come to blows.
Thanks to Strand’s careful balance of comic and dramatic moments, Molly Smith’s smart direction and Gero’s flawless portrayal of Scalia, The Originalist draws you in immediately and keeps you watching (for approximately 100 minutes, with no intermission). Wheeler and Mack deliver worthy performances in their roles, with Wheeler’s Cat going toe-to-toe against the older, wilier Scalia.
But at evening’s end, it’s Gero who will be accepting the inevitable standing ovation.
The Originalist continues through March 7 in rotating repertory; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.