Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through June 10
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The late Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) was still alive and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States when John Strand’s “The Originalist” premiered at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC in 2015. In fact, he gave pointers to Edward Gero, the actor and educator who played him there and has continued to do so in touring productions.
So, it’s no surprise that the supremely respectful play contains few, if any, revelations about the man who apparently relished being one of the most polarizing figures in American jurisprudence. Revered by those who agreed with his ultra-conservative views and reviled as a “monster” by those who didn’t, he was known for his sarcasm and take-no-prisoners style in demolishing his opponents, often brilliantly.
What is a bit surprising, at least for those who don’t know anything about the show in advance, is that it’s a very good fit for Court Theatre in Hyde Park, a traditional bastion of liberalism. This isn’t just a case of the theater presenting controversial views to be provocative.
Scalia was actually on the UChicago law faculty from 1977 to 1982. More importantly, “The Originalist” isn’t a one-man show. It’s an extended debate between Scalia and a fictional young Harvard Law School graduate named Cat (Jade Wheeler), a young woman of color whose opinions are the complete opposite. In the process, Strand aims to humanize Scalia and to demonstrate that people with radically different beliefs can have a dialogue, even become friends, as long as they respect and listen to each other.
This debate kicks off in 2012 with Scalia, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1986 by Ronald Reagan, giving a lecture on the meaning of his Originalism. In essence, he sees the Constitution as a fixed text that must be applied exactly as the Founding Fathers did, just as the notes in his beloved opera must be played as written. He’s interrupted repeatedly by Cat, for whom the Constitution is a living document meant to evolve with the times.
As it turns out, Cat is applying to be a law clerk—Scalia’s law clerk—because, she tells him when he asks, she thinks it’s important to understand the other side. He gives her the job, after a thorough grilling, on the grounds that having a liberal to spar with will help him sharpen his legal opinions, a practice for which there was a precedent in reality, according to the program notes.
And so they spar, sometimes so heatedly that Cat seems to be crossing the line, something Scalia does with impunity, being the one with power and position. They tackle the expected hot-button issues, among them civil rights, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
For the crucial Supreme Court decision granting the fundamental right to same-sex couples to marry, Brad (Brett Mack), Cat’s colleague in law school, is brought in to help write Scalia’s dissenting minority opinion. A brown-nose acolyte, he exemplifies extreme conservatives at their worst, insulting Cat personally and revealing private information about her in the hopes of getting her job, which he envies. Even Scalia dislikes him.
On the other hand, he and Cat, who have similar backgrounds in some ways, bond despite their differences. A devout Catholic, he brings out her religious side and is extremely sympathetic when he learns of her father’s illness and death. He also reveals personal information, such as his disappointment at not being named Chief Justice. She, in turn, learns to shoot, even though she hates guns and favors gun control.
Underlying the arc of the 100-or-so intermission-free minutes is a question that Scalia asks Cat at the beginning about whether or not she thinks she can influence his opinions and he hers. To the first part, she replies “maybe”; to the second, “profoundly.” The wording of his same-sex marriage opinion holds the answer.
Directed by Molly Smith, Gero bears a striking resemblance to Scalia and gives a stunning, alternately biting and funny performance, without which I suspect the show would be impossible. Wheeler’s Cat is tentative to start, perhaps deliberately, but soon comes into her own as a sparring partner who usually gives as good as she gets.
Misha Kachman’s scenic design features a thrust parquet floor, red-velvet drapery, two chandeliers, and Scalia’s desk, which emerges from a curtain and seems to float across the stage. It emphasizes the parallels Scalia draws between the court and the theater and underscores the frequent references to him as a showman. Colin K. Bills lighting includes a few fine effects, while Eric Shimelonis’ sound design does the classical music justice.
I can’t say that “The Originalist” changed my assessment of Scalia, though his honesty and ethics are commendable in the light of current politics, but spending the time with him and Cat was worthwhile.