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‘The Originalist’ lauds the life of Justice Antonin Scalia

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Entertaining ideological back-and-forth is at the heart of this play about the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, powerfully portrayed by actor Edward Gero, and his fictional liberal law clerk, Cat, played by Jade Wheeler. The play first premiered in 2015, and returns to Arena Stage in Washington for an encore presentation. When the volley of arguments and insults subsides, the importance of seeing beyond a person’s politics to their intrinsic worth shines through — a beautiful piece of the real Scalia’s legacy.

Cat and Scalia first meet when she repeatedly interrupts a speech he’s giving. Later, he interviews her for a law clerk position, and though she remains combative, he decides to hire her anyway. “I like having a liberal around,” he tells her. “It reminds me how right I am.”

The two discuss a variety of hot-button topics, including affirmative action, abortion and gun control. Oftentimes, Cat’s pointed questioning seems more a device of the playwright to have Scalia share personal stories, such as his confirmation hearing or his thwarted dreams of becoming chief justice, than a realistic relationship between a justice and his law clerk. Still, Scalia's infamous wit and humor makes the dialogue enjoyable.

His judicial philosophy — originalism —  is likened to opera, one of his great loves. Whatever notes the composer wrote hundreds of years ago are played today, he said. So, too, looking for the intent of the framers of the Constitution should be the guiding principle of interpreting it. The play’s Scalia exudes a conservative bias, but he explains to Cat that his decisions are based solely on the text and his desire for the American people to democratically create new laws, not for judges to invent them.

Their sparring eventually turns into a friendship. Scalia takes Cat to a shooting range and later comforts her after the death of her father. She comes to see that, though a hardliner, Scalia is full of compassion. In contrast, many of her old liberal friends shun her after she becomes his clerk.

Near the end of the play, Cat is asked to draft the justice’s opinion on the United States v. Windsor, a case regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage. Though Cat personally disagrees with him, she manages to stay true to Scalia’s reasoning in her writing.  All she asks is that he adds language humanizing both sides of the controversy.

Scalia refuses, so Cat challenges him to a hand of poker, conceding that if she loses, she will attend Mass every Sunday. Though she loses, he amends his dissent and insists she attend Mass.

After a year of clerking, Cat and Scalia part ways with a mutual sense of respect. Though she still “detests” most of his opinions, Cat says she is beginning to see the difference between a person and his or her ideology. “The Originalist,” which runs through Aug. 6, celebrates those differences of opinion and the brilliant, tenacious and humorous Justice Scalia. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017