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'The Originalist' returns to Arena Stage

(L to R) Brett Mack (Brad), Edward Gero (Antonin Scalia), and Jade Wheeler (Cat) in The Originalist
(Gary W. Sweetman/Asolo Repertory Theatre)

When John Strand's new play The Originalist first ran at Arena Stage, two years ago, it ruffled audience feathers. The show returns this summer -- I saw it on Friday evening in Arena's Kreeger Theater -- after the election of Donald Trump has made Strand's character's appeal for a return to the political middle seem even less plausible as a dream.

Already making matters worse was the death of the title character, Justice Antonin Scalia, in 2016. He had become such a legendary figure to Republicans that, breaking with long-set precedent, the Senate declined even to give a hearing to and vote on President Obama's nominee to fill his seat. It is easy to understand this idolatry: Scalia was a brilliant jurist, a literate and cultured man who wrote some of the most colorful dissents in the court's history. He was the agitator-in-chief, a position apparently taken over by the current occupant of the White House, but without the learned polish and panache.

Other Reviews:

Nelson Pressley, Gero still rules as Scalia in ‘The Originalist’ (Washington Post, July 16, 2017)

Peter Marks, Scalia and his audience (Washington Post, May 9, 2015)

---, Coming to a theater near you: Scalia! The play! (Washington Post, February 26, 2014)
Edward Gero remains masterful as Scalia, his bluster-filled rants landing every punch. More remarkably he uses all the tools Strand's words provide to create sympathy for the often-maligned Scalia. The circumstances of the play, involving a left-leaning law clerk hired by Scalia as an ideological sparring partner, are entirely fictional, but the real-life Scalia's reverence for opera, literature, and the bonds of family comes through loud and clear. The other two roles have changed hands in this revival, beginning with the earnest, green idealism of Jade Wheeler as the law clerk, Cat. She hits the right notes, Cat's optimism and uncertainty, but Strand's play mostly uses the character only as a foil to the lead.

The role of Brad, a true-believer clerk from the Federalist Society, is a foil for the foil, played with smug satisfaction by Brett Mack, who like Wheeler is making his Arena debut. Molly Smith's production is minimal but effective: a large desk and starkly lit red curtains suggest Scalia's office, a simple frame is enough to show a shooting range, and so on. The focus remains, appropriately, on the larger-than-life figure seated at that desk.

The Originalist has been extended through August 6, at Arena Stage.

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