WASHINGTON — A lot has changed in American politics since “The Originalist” debuted in 2015, including the February 2016 death of its subject, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I felt a great loss to the country when he passed,” Gero told WTOP. “It was a good year before we got back to it. We took it down to Florida and opened on Inauguration Day. … People straggled into the theater with a bit of a sense of ‘What’s going to happen?’ … People came up to me [after] and said, ‘There’s a real sense of hope,” and I said: ‘Yeah. There’s a constitution.'”
The play follows a liberal Harvard Law School graduate (Jade Wheeler) who embarks on a nerve-wracking clerkship with the 30-year conservative justice (Gero). Their opposing political persuasions make for passionate debates on many hot-button issues — gun rights (Heller v. District of Columbia), abortion (Roe v. Wade) and the Defense of Marriage Act (Windsor v. United States) — but ultimately, she’s surprised to embrace Scalia as an unexpected mentor.
“Audiences are listening to the play differently now,” Gero said. “We know what’s happened to Justice Scalia. We know the outcome of these cases. So what moves the play forward is how these two people who represent the far sides of the political spectrum manage to listen to each other with respect. They really practice civil listening, civil discourse. It comes as a relief.”
Playwright John Strand penned the play with Gero in mind, having worked together on “The Diaries” at Signature Theatre. Gero then did his research, reading both The Federalist Papers (1787—1888) and the biography “American Original” (2010), before watching Scalia in action during a handful of hearings at the high court, where he sat in Scalia’s official guest chair.
“It was a life-altering experience,” Gero said. “It was a great opportunity to observe how the government works. … After the hearing, I’m escorted into chambers, and there he is behind his desk. … He said, ‘I just want you to know that I’m not coming to see the play, but I’m glad they got somebody good to do it so I won’t be embarrassed. Now, let’s get some lunch.'”
During that initial lunch, Gero said they ate a “lovely” shrimp salad with greens and wine.
“[We] shared heritage, both Italian-American, Roman Catholic [from] New Jersey,” Gero said. “He was very warm, very generous, very funny. Truly the smartest person I’ve met in my life. … It was freewheeling. We talked about music, Italy, language. … I said, ‘What’s your favorite opera?’ He said: ‘I can’t answer that question. That’s like me asking you what’s your favorite Shakespeare play?’ I said, ‘Well, who’s your favorite composer?’ He said: ‘That’s easy. Mozart.'”
During subsequent meetings, the lunch menu switched almost exclusively to Chinese food.
“They had fortune cookies,” Gero said. “His fortune cookie read, ‘One’s mind once opened by a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.’ It’s an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote! I said, ‘What is this? A Supreme Court Chinese food store? What is this?!?’ So I kept that [fortune cookie]. That’s one of my souvenirs. … It’s on my dressing table. It’s one of the amulets I have.”
Such is the beauty of D.C. theater, its proximity providing unique access to today’s political titans. Hollywood actors must fly across the country to watch Supreme Court arguments, while Broadway actors can’t regularly perform with congressmen sitting in the audience.
“That’s what’s so wonderful about the Washington theater community,” Gero said. “Justices, politicos, senators and congressmen are part of our audience. They’re our neighbors. We run into them in the grocery store. … I’ve been here almost 35 years. … You cannot speak to leaders of government anywhere else with such proximity, not in New York, Chicago or L.A.”
That’s the goal for artistic director Molly Smith in her new Power Plays series, commissioning 25 new productions over the next 10 years, each exploring a different decade of our republic.
“[That’s] what theater is about,” Gero said. “If you go back to Athens, the artists were part of the conversation about democracy. Those of us who’ve been in the Beltway for 30 years have seen [politicians] come and go, we’ve been through Iran-Contra and every other scandal along the way. We really are the canaries in the mine saying: ‘Calm down. Speak civilly. Listen to each other.’ There are things we can do as citizen-artists to participate in the conversation.”
Currently, that conversation is “The Originalist” at Arena Stage.
“It’s a breath of fresh air to sit in a room in this political time and hear people actually listen to each other and be reminded that the Constitution is there to protect us and that no one is greater than the Constitution,” Gero said. “The closer we come to a constitutional crisis — if that’s where we’re heading — we’ll be grateful that there are people like the clerk and people like Scalia who are actually working in that vineyard to protect what we have as a country.”
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