Review: ‘The Originalist’ at Asolo Repertory Theatre

Playing now in repertoire with The Great Society, a stunning new play that New York has not yet seen, called The Originalist, is keeping the good citizens of Sarasota who clearly love good theatre happy. John Strand’s tight and combustible play opened January 20th, and it’s been packing them in ever since.

Edward Gero as Justice Antonin Scalia. Photo by Cliff Roles.

Under Molly Smith’s focused direction, Edward Gero is giving a superb performance as the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and the play has great resonance right now when President Trump’s candidate to replace him on the bench is being examined by the Congress. The play first premiered under Molly Smith’s direction at Arena Stage in Washington, DC in the spring of 2015. Because they were in Washington, developing and producing the play, authenticity was everything. Even though it was a play about a real person it was combined with the imagination of the author. It would be playing to audiences that often included other justices who would be knowing and disagreeing or agreeing with the way in which the Supreme Court was being portrayed.

Others who clerked for Justice Scalia or who knew him personally were available for consultation during the formative days of the play’s creation, and Justice Scalia himself was so impressed with Edward Gero who was playing him that when asked what he was going to do when he retired, answered: “Well, I’ve been thinking that I might do a one-man show about an actor by the name of Edward Gero.”

And Mr. Gero is indeed giving us a blazing star turn as he brings a palette full of colors to his characterization of this right wing firebrand who earned great respect in his time, for his ability to consider viewpoints other than his own, always determined to protect the intent, rather than the interpretation of the Constitution forged by our founding fathers. He was also feared and called a great monster by some. To do this, MacArthur Award winner John Strand places the polarizing judicial titan Justice Antonin Scalia, and pits him against Cat, a brilliant strong willed African American female liberal law clerk, whose ideals totally clash with his own. He likes her spirit, and admires but disagrees with her values, acknowledging they were formed from a background very different from his own.

The Originalist is an artful examination of how and if people can ever get beyond their political differences in order to meet somewhere in the middle. If ever a play hits home more than this one does today, I cannot name it. The setting is in and around Washington 2012-2013 term of the U.S. Supreme Court. The bench, the office, the city itself are all neatly captured in the sets and costumes by Misha Katchman and Joseph Salasovich which accommodate Molly Smith’s very fluid staging.

Edward Gero (Justice Antonin Scalia) and Jade Wheeler (Cat). Photo by Cliff Roles.

The role of Cat requires an actress who can hold her own in a contest that would seem at first glance to be unfairly tilted toward the Justice, and the man playing him, for they are formidable opponents. But from the moment Jade Wheeler, as Cat, challenges the Judge Scalia from the audience, we are intrigued. This young woman has vast regional theatre experience, but this is her first encounter with Asolo Rep. Her character’s mind is sharp, and try as he does, the Judge cannot shake her convictions or her basic respect for him, though she wishes he could do more than listen to her. She would like it if she could change the course of his discourse, and all l can tell you about the conclusion of the play is that it seemed to me on the nose in terms of honesty, tenderness, toughness, and truth.

Brett Mack, who plays the much larger role of Senator Robert Kennedy in The Great Society, does a fine job in the supporting part of another of Justice Scalia’s clerks, one who would like nothing better than to remove Cat from the face of the earth.

There is potent humor in this play as well as great conflict which combine to make The Originalist a candidate for many other productions. If one comes your way, or if you find yourself in the neighborhood of Sarasota during its run there, see this play. It’s enlightening and it offers hope to us in a time when hope is needed.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Originalist plays through March 7, 2017, at Asolo Repertory Theatre – 5555 North Tamiami Trail, in Sarasota, Florida. For tickets, call the box office at (941) 351-9010/800-361-8388, or purchase them online.

‘The Originalist’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater reviewed by Robert Michael Oliver.

In The Moment: ‘The Originalist’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater by David Siegel.

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