It was an occasion both somber and celebratory. A packed Washington theater audience witnessed the first revival performance of “The Originalist” four months after the death of its legendary and large-hearted “star,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Every seat was filled in the Kogod Cradle on Saturday at Arena Stage for L.A. Theatre Works’ invitation-only recording of the play, which featured the original cast of the 2015 production. Edward Gero reprised his role as Antonin Scalia, the conservative legal giant, along with Kerry Warren as Cat, his feisty, liberal Harvard law clerk, and Harlan Work as Cat’s friend Brad, under the direction of Molly Smith.
While Scalia’s unexpected passing in February loomed over the production, John Strand’s writing, which featured true accounts from the late justice’s life, earned many laughs. Focusing on liberal Cat’s nerve-wracking clerkship with Scalia, the play explored the personal and intellectual dynamics between the two.
When Cat describes herself at one point as a “flaming” liberal, the justice rejoins that that is “probably every liberal’s fate in the afterlife.”
“I tell people what they don’t want to hear,” the opera-loving justice says triumphantly at another point in Mr. Strand’s play.
One particularly poignant moment earned a roar of laughter when Cat asked the justice what he thought would happen after his passing. Mr. Gero, as the justice, responded prophetically that half the country would mourn and the other half would argue about who would fill his seat.
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The Los Angeles troupe’s recording and free educational materials are being prepared for distribution to U.S. high school teachers.
“The Originalist” will be broadcast on the D.C. area’s NPR affiliate station WAMU 88.5 FM and others nationwide. In January, “The Originalist” will move to the Asolo Repertory Theater in Sarasota, Florida, for a series of performances.
In a post-show discussion, a group of Scalia’s colleagues, former law clerks and friends reminisced about the late justice. They included NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg, ScotusBlog co-founder and Chairman Tom Goldstein and Mr. Gero.
“The play really does accurately capture him,” said Mr. Goldstein.
The Washington lawyer noted that the script captured the justice’s willingness to engage with intellectual adversaries, talk with students and challenge conventional thinking about the meaning of the Constitution.
Before the discussion, the stage was set with three chairs behind three microphones adjacent to a table of props. Joe Brack, the theater’s sound effect artist, used the props to re-enact sounds that the actors could not for the radio audience.
Mr. Strand addressed the changes needed to transition from a visual to an audio performance. He said the writing remained entirely the same but some larger scenes from the original play, such as a food fight involving Cat and Brad, her Harvard rival called in to help research a key opinion for the justice, had to be modified to a smaller scale.
“There are a lot of little touches in the play that are so true to Scalia-isms,” said Ms. Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent. The play was able to capture small quirks and habits of the justice in both Mr. Gero’s acting and Mr. Strand’s writing, she said.
No mention was made of the controversy surrounding the justice’s still-empty seat on the Supreme Court or the Senate stalemate over Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice to fill the vacancy.
Instead, friends and colleagues exchanged memories of the justice and concluded that they were grateful for the play because it honored Scalia’s legacy as a judge and as a person.
Although the justice never saw “The Originalist,” he did meet several times with Mr. Gero before and after its Arena Stage premiere. The actor, in a recent Washington Post interview, described the shock he felt when he heard the news of the 79-year-old justice’s death.
In a March 2015 interview with The Washington Times, the actor described the bond he forged with his subject in their many talks.
“By the end of the time I spent with him, I felt like I was spending time with an uncle,” Mr. Gero said at the time. Scalia was “very warm, very generous and a very streetwise person of Italian-American upbringing working his way up to the top. And he hasn’t forgotten his roots.”