BWW Review: Thought Provoking THE ORIGINALIST Arrives at Pasadena Playhouse
From the moment the strains of Verdi's La Traviata were heard in the wings and Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia entered through a part in the curtain pretending to conduct the orchestra in a joyously bemused state, I sensed we were in for a treat. How right I was! In and around the courtroom ... a perfect place for passion and theatrics, this is John Strand's The Originalist, a somewhat factual play set in Washington from 2012-13. The piece boasts intelligent writing, and a grande performance from Gero as Scalia, as well as great work from Jade Wheeler and Brett Mack, all of whom leave an indelible mark by making us think. You actually leave the theatre refreshed ... and somewhat hopeful about the future of our political system.
At the top, as Scalia is discussing affirmative action, a Harvard graduate Cat (Jade Wheeler) rises to her feet in the audience and asks a question - encouraging rebuttal - about the validity of Roe v. Wade. Hasn't the plea for abortion changed with the times? Not expecting a Q&A, Scalia quickly sits her down and continues. What ensues is a consistent rebuttal from the young lady which eventually leads to a surprising interview that also becomes quite heated. In spite of their differences, Scalia appoints Cat his clerk. He appreciates her inquisitive nature, knows she will keep him on his toes, so to speak, and of course, as Brad later points out, she is black, and being in a minority is in her favor.
At the core of the play is the give and take of the two as they hash out cases involving abortion, gun rights, capital punishment, and gay marriage. She calls Scalia a monster, 'confident' - careful not to call him arrogant - always a dissentor, someone to be feared. He chastises her for her lack of objectivity, her decisions not based on law but on emotion. She is all heart and hates rules and regulations; he, on the other hand, views sentiment as wishful thinking, a fairy tale that clouds the issues and prevents justice. As to Cat's personal life, the father that she has so adored lies dying and she feels lost without his help in making the correct decisions to govern her life. Scalia, when he learns about this, becomes a substitute parent, not only guiding her in chambers, but in the real world as well, taking her to an opera and encouraging more belief in the tenets of the Catholic Church. Both are Catholic: he, devout; she, lapsed. The ending, although a happy one, is not cheaply written like a TV script, but exceedingly well thought out and documented to the slightest detail by John Strand who consistently aims for the middle ground, a balance between upholding the constitution as pure law yet still recognizing changes in society and the issues of humanity at stake.
Under Smith's steady and even direction, the actors make a dream team. They listen to each other and react with passion, integrity and genuine 'soul'. There is never a dull moment. Gero plays Scalia as a stickler on the principles of the Constitution, yet does show wonderful moments of humor and caring. Wheeler makes Cat vulnerable and willing to learn. Each character changes for the better with some elements of compromise. The actors beautifully paint each complex portrait. Brett Mack in the smaller role of Brad, Cat's competitor and eventual work mate, brings out his unlikable quality of "major suck up" to the letter.
Set design by Misha Kachman is very basic yet effective with appropriate furniture pieces and a red curtain in the background.
To set the record straight, in a program note from playwright Strand, he has written the play not exclusively about Scalia, although he has included many of his dissents and opinions. The play in its entirety is a reflection of our troubled times in which tradition and its rejection are in constant battle.
Don't miss The Originalist! It will make you laugh, maybe even cry a little, and keep you intellectually and artistically alert from start to finish.