In 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in his sleep after hunting quail in Texas. The coroner cited natural causes, but the coroner was wrong. Scalia appears to be alive and in fighting form on the stage of Court Theatre at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. At the very least, Scalia, who was on the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School from 1977 to 1982, has been reincarnated in the body of actor Edward Gero.
A doppelganger for the late justice, Gero thoroughly inhabits the role of Scalia in John Strand’s 2015 play, The Originalist. Shuffling across the stage, singing an aria, debating legal points, Gero is Scalia, never out of character until after he takes a final bow and exits the stage sans shuffle.
Known for his work as a Shakespearean actor, Gero is accustomed to playing larger than life characters, but the role of Scalia comes with a twist. “As a Shakespearean actor, I’m used to playing a lot of characters people love to hate,” says Gero in a program note, “but I’ve never played one that audiences hate to love.”
To make a conservative like Scalia appeal to liberal audiences, playwright Strand drew on Scalia’s well-known sense of humor and on the personal friendship he shared with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg despite the ideological divide that separated them.
To dramatize Scalia’s conservative thinking, Strand created a foil in the character of Cat (Jade Wheeler, in a winning performance), a 20-something Harvard Law School graduate with a decidedly liberal bent. Aside from a brilliant legal mind, Cat, who succeeds in her campaign to become Scalia’s clerk, seems to have little in common with Scalia, and the game is on. The two go at their legal battles armed with logic and precedents. Director Molly Smith does a capable job of animating these characters across Misha Kachman’s elegantly simple set.
Strand’s formula works well enough to explore some complex legal issues, but the legal arguments become static at times. The playwright seems to have sensed that, but rather than leave well enough alone, Strand introduces a third character, Brad (Brett Mack), a conservative classmate of Cat’s. If anything, that third character merely weakens the dramatic and legal conflicts between Cat and Scalia rather than illuminating them.
If Strand had wanted to set up a dramatic triangle that works, he already had it in The Constitution of the United States, pocket copies of which accompany the playbills. Originalism refers to the idea that the Constitution holds the key to U.S. law, but as U. of C. law professor David A. Strauss points out, conservative Justice Scalia was not the first originalist on the Supreme Court. Liberal Justice Hugo Black, who died in 1971, 15 years before Scalia took his seat on the bench, was the original originalist. One document; two radically different interpretations.
Through June 10, 2018
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago (free garage parking during evening performances)
Tickets $44–$74 at Court Theatre or (773) 753-4472