BWW Review: THE ORIGINALIST Provokes at Arena Stage
Can ideological opponents learn from each other? Is there any common ground? THE ORIGINALIST introduces Antonin Scalia as "the most polarizing figure in American civic life." When a liberal Harvard Law grad ("I fall in the flaming category") clerks for the justice, she encounters both maddening combatant and sage mentor.
"There is a middle and it's deserted," we hear in THE ORIGINALIST. This quest for being heard on a politically divisive issue is ever more resonant today. "Rule on law, not on emotion," says the justice as he explains his originalist philosophy of the interpretation of the Constitution as a document with fixed meaning. Yet there is both emotion and law aplenty in THE ORIGINALIST, as justice and clerk spar.
THE ORIGINALIST, which was first produced by Arena Stage in 2015, returns to Arena for a limited run. THE ORIGINALIST is a co-production with Asolo Repertory Theatre and Pasadena Playhouse where the production has recently toured. Molly Smith directs the work by John Strand.
It is hard to imagine any actor inhabiting the part of Antonin Scalia other than Edward Gero, who is so associated with the role that some news outlets mistakenly usEd Gero's photograph instead of the justice's after Scalia's death in 2016. Gero originated the role two years ago at Arena and in preparation had the opportunity to get to know the justice.
THE ORIGINALIST'S Scalia is Shakespearean: brilliant, arrogant, funny, polarizing, flawed, and larger than life. Gero, who has portrayed many of the Bard's great roles over three decades with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, pulls from the same classical toolbox. A moment of prayer, a quirk of an eyebrow, a surprised guffaw - Gero shares a deep, surprising, multi-dimensional, very human portrayal.
From the moment the prospective clerk, Cat (Jade Wheeler) pops up from her seat in the house to confront the justice, we see her as an eager, exasperated sparring partner. She probes, she pushes back, she learns. Wheeler brings wit, youth and energy to the role. From the rifle range to a requiem mass, Cat establishes a rapport with the justice even as she bitterly disagrees with his decisions.
Fellow colleague, Brad (Brett Mack), is jealous and fawning, eager to spar and stir up trouble. Mack brings the right tone of back-stabbing brown-nosing to the role.
Misha Kachman's set is spare with parquet floors, velvet drapes and chandeliers aptly suggesting the court. Colin K. Bills' lighting design help shift the scene to a hospital room or church interior. Joseph P. Salasovich's contemporary costumes convey a familiar Washington.
Theatre is ephemeral; streaming cherished episodes or indulging in reruns in syndication are not options. What a rare treat to have an opportunity to experience an encore presentation of a production with much of the team that originated the work. (Beyond THE ORIGINALIST, Washington theater-goers also have a chance to revisit AN OCTOROON during a limited run at Woolly Mammoth later this month and the Helen Hayes Award-winning WORD BECOMES FLESH at Theater Alliance in September.) Those who missed THE ORIGINALIST when it premiered have a new opportunity to discover the production. Others who experienced it during the premiere will find new resonance with the changed political landscape and newly configured court. "The play has become more meaningful over the past year since Justice Scalia's passing, with the new administration, strong rewrites by John Strand, and productions in Florida and California that have deepened the performances," says Artistic Director and production director Molly Smith. "Striving for a middle ground seems like an epic struggle these days." Over the next decade Arena Stage will be commissioning new work exploring politics and power as part of the Power Plays initiative.
Arena Stage is hosting special ticketed post-show conversations with high-profile panelists including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
"Washington is a town filled with people who succeed in law and politics; few know their soul," says the Scalia in the production. In THE ORIGINALIST we have an opportunity to see two legal minds search their own souls for connection and an understanding that there are good people on both sides of any issue.
Runtime: 1:45 with no intermission
THE ORIGINALIST presented by Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through August 6 (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:30 PM; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 PM). At the Kreeger Theater (1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024). More information and tickets found here.
Top: Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre. Next: (L to R) Edward Gero and Jade Wheeler; photo by Gary W. Sweetman. Center: Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; photo by C. Stanley Photography. Next: (L to R) Jade Wheeler as Cat and Brett Mack as Brad; photo by Gary W. Sweetman. Next: Edward Gero; photo by C. Stanley Photography. Bottom: (L to R) Brett Mack as Brad, Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Jade Wheeler as Cat; photo by Gary W. Sweetman.