At the Court Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –Early in “The Originalist” at the Court Theatre, a liberal law school student named Cat is interviewing Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia for a coveted position as his law clerk. Scalia inquires why she wants the job. Cat responds “You are probably the most polarizing figure in American civic life.” Scalia snarls back “Probably? I hold the title, thank you. Strike the ‘probably.’”
Scalia, who died in 2016, certainly was one of the most controversial figures in the history of the Supreme Court. A rock-ribbed conservative, he fought for a strict interpretation of the Constitution, hence the name “Originalist.” His detractors called him a bully and heartless. He certainly did not suffer fools gladly, fools being anyone who disagreed with him in general and liberals in particular. He had a scathing wit and a ferocious writing style. It was his way or the highway in matters of constitutional interpretation, and he unapologetically took conservative sides against such hot button issues as abortion, same sex marriage, and civil rights.
“The Originalist” is essentially a two-character play that consists of debates between the judge and the liberal law clerk over the correct interpretation of the Constitution. The clerk appealed for understanding and compromise. She asks for the recognition that society has shifted since the Constitution was created more than 300 years ago, shifts that the court should acknowledge. For Scalia, there could be no compromises, no blurring of the law through emotions or sentimentality. The words in the Constitution are final and unalterable. Case closed.
The arguments between a judge and his young clerk may seem limited in interest for the average theatergoer, though a prime topic for the University of Chicago-based audience that patronizes the Court Theatre. But “The Originalist,” though contrived at times, soars because Scalia was a fascinating individual who expressed himself with verve and eloquence, especially in the flawless portrayal by Edward Gero. The man has played Scalia since the play first opened in Washington, D.C. and has remained in the role in subsequent productions throughout the country. Gero bears a strong physical resemblance to the judge and his brilliant performance suggests that the play is unthinkable without him as the star.
Outwardly, playwright John Strand takes no sides in his representation of Scalia, assembling much of the script from the judge’s own words in his published opinions, speeches, and other public utterances. But the bullying and contempt that created so many enemies in real life are leavened in the play by Scalia’s droll wit. His opponents may challenge Scalia as inhumane and unbending in his rigorous reading of the Constitution but in “The Originalist” at least it is difficult to hate the man. He makes us laugh too much with his sarcasm. Scalia was called a “monster” by his opponents, a term the judge himself accepted with some relish.
The play shows a Scalia who was a devout Catholic and a lover of opera. He welcomed dissent if only to allow him the pleasure of demolishing his opponents with his legal scholarship and sneering. We see the human side of Scalia when he bitterly expresses his sense of injustice at being passed over for the vacant position of chief justice of the court. Scalia wanted that job, believed he had earned it, and grieved over the rejection. If you accept the man’s strict construction approach to the Constitution, his opinions are unarguable. He was certain the Founding Fathers wrote a Constitution that could not be circumvented by changing fashions or by soft hearted flaming liberals, a view he expressed with a take-no-prisoners adversarial manner that many people found infuriating.
For much of the play the clerk serves primarily as a sounding board for Scalia’s views. She gives as good as she gets, but the man is often convincing, and always immovable. In the later scenes, the playwright introduces Brad, a young conservative (Brett Mack) to assist Scalia and Cat in preparing the judge’s opinion in the inflammatory issue of legalizing same sex marriage. Brad is a pompous brown noser who makes conservatives look bad (even Scalia can’t stand him) and perhaps tips John Strand’s hand on which side of the conservative-liberal divide he leans toward.
As Cat, Jade Wheeler, a veteran of previous productions of the play, is a little wooden in the earlier scenes but loosens up as the show progresses. But would the real Scalia put up with Cat’s increasing rudeness as she argues? I suspect her diminished civility would have met with swift action by the judge, who reserves sarcasm for himself. There is also a revelation about Cat’s personal life late in the play that seems gratuitous and manipulative.
The play is directed by Molly Smith, the original director, with Seema Sueko credited as associate director. The directing is unobtrusive, properly allowing Gero to carry the play. The actors perform on a minimalist set designed by Misha Kachman that consists of a parquet wood floor thrusting into the audience. A large crimson curtain occupies the back of the stage with Scalia’s large desk and a chair the major props. Joseph Salasovich designed the costumes, Colin K. Bills and Will Kirkham the lighting, and Eric Shimelonis the sound.
“The Originalist” triumphs by uniting a stimulating script with a fascinating central character and an exceptional lead performance. It’s no mean dramatic accomplishment to elevate a potentially elitist topic into a drama that is challenging and literate and most of all, can entertain a broad-based audience. Love him or hate him, Antonin Scalia is wonderful company for an evening. For this boon to audiences, Edward Gero and John Strand deserve much thanks.
The show gets a rating. May 2018
“The Originalist” runs through June 10 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30. Tickets are $44 to $74. Call 773 753 4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org .
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