The concept of watching the portrayal of a polarizing and legendary 21st-century figure, who died just last year, is more difficult to grasp than initially predicted.
“The Originalist,” a political drama about the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, returned to D.C.’s Arena Stage this month, more than two years after its 2015 debut when the justice was still alive.
The play is focused around showing Scalia’s “heart,” and while at times it was cutesy and dramatized, it is a rare modern-time play for Arena Stage.
Scalia, played by Edward Gero, feels less iconic and more human, full of humor, occasional anger, faith and kindness.
At the beginning of the production, Scalia interviews the fictional Cat, an outwardly liberal Harvard Law School graduate played by Jade Wheeler, for a clerkship. She tests his patience and questions him on various dissents he has written, voicing her disdain for his decisions.
Cat also refers to him as a “monster” several times, either to his face or to her father (who is in a coma). It’s unrealistic that a clerk would speak to a justice that way, but it creates a good dramatization of their relationship.
Scalia ends up hiring Cat and being very honest with her.
He speaks to her about his confirmation process when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy questioned if he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights decision, and Sen. Strom Thurmond, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chairman, stepped in to defend him.
He speaks to her about the time when President George W. Bush gave fellow Justice John G. Roberts Jr. the top position on the bench instead of him, referring to Bush as a “puppet.”
He speaks to her about his love for and friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the seriousness he felt about maintaining respect for her intellect.
Scalia comes to favor Cat over his other clerk, Brad, an extremely conservative young law school graduate played by Brett Mack. He takes her hunting, which Scalia was known to love. He ultimately died while on a hunting trip in Texas last year.
Scalia’s health was a theme in the play, which wasn’t changed after his death.
He gains weight and starts smoking more often and Cat displays her frustration with him for both. He also says, at one point, that when he does die, half the country will celebrate and the other half will fight over who will replace him on the bench.
Gero told HOH last month that the late justice never saw the play.
Scalia’s faith, as expected, is also featured in the play. A pivotal bonding moment for Cat and the justice comes when her father dies and Scalia brings her to Mass at D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the U.S.
The end of the play is centered around the time a key element of the Defense of Marriage Act is struck down in 2013 and Scalia writes the dissent. Cat and Brad fight over lines in Scalia’s opinion and Cat ultimately gets him to put a little more compassion into it.
Following a special showing on Thursday, director Molly Smith told the audience, “It’s been absolutely fantastic to bring “The Originalist” back home.”
“This is a city that understands the material top to bottom,” she said. “… Quite frankly, there’s nothing like a D.C. audience.”
Scalia’s grandson, Antonin ‘Nino’ Scalia, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., were spotted at the performance.
“The Originalist” runs through Aug. 6.