banner

reviewed by Mark Kamish

When I began law school in 1996, Antonin Scalia was a third of the way into the almost 30 years he would spend on the bench as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. By then, Scalia had amassed a body of opinions that were becoming legendary. I was assigned to read many of them. They were unparalleled – brilliant in legal analysis, sharp, witty and biting in prose. But the times they were a-changin,’ and Scalia’s words were being more frequently found in dissenting rather than majority opinions. But Scalia held firm. Until his passing in 2016, his career was marked by a conservative ideology and an originalist judicial viewpoint: the belief that the interpretation of the Constitution should be based on what it originally meant to the people who ratified it 230 years ago.

In the past two decades, that judicial philosophy was at odds with an ever-growing number of Scalia’s more liberal colleagues on the High Court, who viewed the Constitution as a living document – one that was written by its framer in flexible terms that would allow and even encourage an evolving interpretation as society grows and changes. Scalia’s originalist creed informed his legally conservative interpretations – many of them seen as “heartless” – opposition to affirmative action or any law that made distinctions by race, gender or sexual orientation, support of capital punishment, favoring states’ rights over federal authority and police power over Fourth Amendment rights of citizens, to name a few.

22496133_10156530291105752_157926556656534202_o

Ayanna Bria Bakari, Henry Woronicz and Jeb Burris in IRT’s 2017 production of “The Originalist”.

But while John Strand’s drama, The Originalist, spotlights this iconic and polarizing figure, the play (100 minutes without intermission) is not biography; it is a question. And that questions is this: Can our fervently-believed and deeply-held “truths” allow us to ever make room for the alternate and opposing “truths” of others (just as fervently believed and deeply held)? Can we “suppress our fear and distrust, take a step toward the middle, and sit down with the monsters?”

This incredibly timely piece (originally produced in 2015) centers on the relationship between Justice Scalia and a fictional left-wing Harvard Law graduate named Cat who, after initially interrupting Scalia at a public presentation and arguing with him, is hired as one of his law clerks. Cat is Scalia’s “counterclerk” – a liberal who serves as his in-chambers sparring partner.

SCALIA: Just how liberal are you anyway?

CAT: Sir, I fall into the ‘flaming’ category.

SCALIA: Probably every liberal’s fate in the afterlife.

The two rant and ramble over a broad range of legal and policy issues, ending with Scalia’s dissent in United States v. Windsor (the 2013 Supreme Court decision holding unconstitutional a federal interpretation of “marriage” and “spouse” as applying only to opposite-sex unions).

And as those heated, soul-revealing debates unfold, something interesting begins to happen. As time is spent together and passionate, intellectual (and often loud) debates take place, trust is developing and defenses are dropping – a little at a time. Soon, inexplicably, polar opposites are attracting, pulling one another toward middle ground.

22498861_10156530291280752_1501336826834684135_o

Ayanna Bria Bakari and Henry Woronicz in IRT’s 2017 production of “The Originalist”.

Despite Scalia’s belief that the heart has no role in constitutional interpretation (“Cat, you’re arguing from emotion. Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change. Emotion is what you had for breakfast yesterday.”), his law clerk draws him to matters of the heart. He reluctantly describes his devastation and the personal, privately-held pain of not being nominated for Chief Justice by President George W. Bush after the death of Scalia’s friend and ideological ally, Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He shares his fondness for and friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose contrary views on controversial issues are just as outspoken as his own. And he brings consolation, empathy and fatherly love to his law clerk when Cat is left broken and reeling by a family member’s death.

The arc of Cat’s move to the middle bends, of course, toward “the monster” who is her boss.

SCALIA: Why do you want to work for me?

CAT: Well, you are probably the most polarizing figure in American life.

SCALIA: Probably? I hold the title, thank you. Strike the probably.

The most comical (but representative) depiction of Cat’s evolution in tolerance involves scenes that begin on a Virginia rifle range, with Scalia teaching the gun-control advocate Cat how to fire a semiautomatic AR-10 assault-style rifle.

CAT: <BANG!> Did I hit anything.

SCALIA: Something in Maryland, I’d suspect.

By the end of the show, Cat is scoring bullseyes on the range, as well as on the battlefield of ideas. She admits she has matured in her self-understanding and tells Scalia that when liberals depict him as a monster, they’re just seeing their own fears in the mirror. The English language has words to describe projecting one’s own fears onto ideological and political opponents: “demonization,” “prejudice” and “bigotry,” to name a few.

Of course, the hidden qualities each character reveals as they move toward the center have always been there. Scalia indeed has heart, as well as a weakness for opera and the music of Mozart. And Cat has a great legal mind; the ability to apply law to facts and very effectively write summaries and arguments her boss will use to write opinions that conflict with her personal beliefs and world view.

Plays like The Originalist, comprising almost exclusively monologues and dialogues between two characters, are tricky. If the performances on stage don’t quickly create believable characters the audience cares about, and if those characters don’t as quickly and effectively transport the audience to emotional experiences, it can be a long night. Thankfully, both John Strand’s script and the three talented actors performing it succeed on both counts; an hour-and-forty minutes seems to fly by.

IRT veteran actor Henry Woronicz (whom I enjoyed in last year’s IRT production of The Mousetrap) more than makes up for what I felt was not a strong physical resemblance of Justice Scalia, with a spellbinding performance that captures the charm, eloquence, wit, self-assuredness and self-awareness (not taking himself too seriously) the late Justice is said to have been blessed with. Woronicz creates the endearing antagonist the Scalia character was surely meant to depict.

Cat was portrayed by IRT newcomer Ayanna Bria Bakari. Her bio expresses excitement in “kicking off” her professional acting career with this role. In this reviewer’s opinion, last night was one hell of a kickoff. For me, memorable performances by a stage actor are not crafted from splendid line delivery, but from the splendid way in which the actor actively listens to the other characters. Perfect reactions in body, face and voice to other characters and to situations seem to follow. Ms. Bakari nails this role – “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” (as actor and acting coach Sanford Meisner was fond of teaching). Her performance alone is reason to check out this show.

22519877_10156530291755752_4858243531884501613_o

Jeb Burris in IRT’s 2017 production of “The Originalist”.

The supporting role in this play, a straight-laced, hard right-winged, young Republican sycophant named Brad (another of Scalia’s clerks) does his own sparring with Cat, and seeks to undermine her growing relationship with the boss. Actor Jeb Burris does a great job in portraying a hateful character with no openly-redeeming qualities (including a refusal to let his boss and ideological hero be influenced by the temptress, let alone consider positions contrary to his own). The heated debates between Brad and Cat didn’t work for me as well as the Scalia-Cat exchanges, however. Maybe there seemed to me less depth in smart exchanges between 20-somethings than between characters separated by 50 years of life and experiences; or maybe it was because there seemed little point to hearing the same ideological arguments between two people who the audience knew would never be able to see beyond their differences (especially after a betrayal that shatters the trust needed to come together).

We seem to live in a very divided nation these days. However, as I watch Burns and Novick’s film The Vietnam War, things don’t seem a great deal different from the way they were 50 years ago in this country. I don’t know if there is value in compromising one’s deeply-held convictions and beliefs to reach consensus with the “other side.” But maybe in recognizing those qualities of sameness that connect us as human beings in the very ways our thoughts and ideas divide us . . . , maybe by attempting to do that, we can all become better off for the effort.

The Originalist will continue its run at Indiana Repertory Theatre’s Upperstage through November 12. For more specific information on dates, show times, ticket orders, plus back stories of the play, the cast and crew, visit IRT’s website at http://www.irtlive.com/.

 * – Photos by Zach Rosing

Advertisements