Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Originalist
(Encore Run)
Arena Stage

Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule


Edward Gero and Jade Wheeler
Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre
Two years ago, when John Strand's play The Originalist premiered at Arena Stage in Washington, Justice Antonin Scalia was still a vital part of the U.S. Supreme Court and no one knew what upheavals were coming. First was Scalia's death in early 2016, then Congress' refusal to consider President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to Scalia's seat, and the election of Donald Trump in November meant that no one really knew what would happen next.

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 works—and 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.

Arena Stage
A co-production with Asolo Repertory Theatre and Pasadena Playhouse
The Originalist
July 7th - August 6th, 2017
By John Strand
Antonin Scalia: Edward Gero
Cat: Jade Wheeler
Brad: Brett Mack
Directed by Molly Smith
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


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