In these heady times where the Constitution is on everyone’s minds and lips, it was an unexpected pleasure to watch “The Originalist,” a play about famed and recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, which premiered at Asolo Repertory Theatre on inauguration day.
Scalia’s death last year has thrown the Supreme Court into the forefront of political discourse. “The Originalist,” written by John Strand, premiered in Washington, D.C. while he was still alive. Edward Gero, who originated the role, gave an incredibly lived in performance as Scalia with the full force of his dynamic and somewhat brutish persona. Gero met with Scalia several times to prepare for the role, and they enjoyed a burgeoning friendship. However, the Justice never came to see the production. The two share an undeniably similar appearance, and Gero is phenomenal in the role. My guess is Scalia would have loved it.
The production centers on another seemingly unlikely friendship – Scalia’s relationship with a liberal law clerk named Cat played by Jade Wheeler. Although Scalia never hired someone fitting Cat’s description, he did like to bring law clerks aboard who disagreed with him on policy to help him hone the strength of his written opinions.
Cat begins working for Scalia so that she can expose herself to someone with whom she vehemently disagrees as a challenge to herself at a difficult time in her life. We learn that the recent law graduate’s father, a literature professor whom she idealizes, is in a coma and missed her graduation.
Scalia and Cat argue profusely, but they have a growing respect and admiration for one another. Scalia assigns Cat to be the lead clerk on his dissent in the United States v. Windsor, which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and ultimately laid the groundwork for Obergefell v. Hodges, which rendered same sex marriages constitutionally protected. (Note that Scalia also dissented in Obergefell, one of his final major opinions before his death). Cat ends up working on the dissent with her conservative former classmate played by Brett Mack (who wowed as Robert Kennedy in “The Great Society”).
What grows into a powerful imagined friendship turns out to be an incredible lesson for present day audiences about finding a glimmer of commonality between political opponents. Cat hilariously finds herself enjoying her mentor’s beloved pastime shooting at a gun range; and they connect over a few other shared experiences, which I will let audiences see for themselves. Yet, unfortunately, friendships like Nino’s and Cat’s seem to reside in the imagination at this time. This night at the theater with “The Originalist” is a salvo for what ails us these days and had the audience immediately on their feet at the end of the production.