“What does it take to suppress our fear and distrust, move towards the middle, and sit down with the monsters?”
This writer’s answer would be: How much time do you have?
In The Originalist, a 90-minute-play offering no intermission and currently running at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California now through May 7, you’ll find no lack of content to pull from as you ponder Strands question. The play takes place in and around Washington, D. C. during the 2012-2013 term of the U. S. Supreme Court. We first see Scalia as he emerges through an opening in drawn curtains, as Verdi’s La Traviata glides through the speakers to his obvious delight.
The audience applauds.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” he asks. Clearly, he is an enthusiast as he dives into exactly why he feels this way. We are then subjected to his litany of reasoning before a young African American woman, a Harvard law school graduate we later come to know as Cat, emerges from the audience to challenge him by asking about Roe v. Wade.
In his attempts to manage the inquisitive audience member, who continues to offer rebuttal-type comments and questions, the writer aptly manages to showcase (and humanize) the sarcasm Scalia, who passed away in February of 2016, became known for. Strand’s fluid writing also makes some of Scalia’s more teeth-clinching outbursts almost palatable through humor. Almost. But then again, lines alone can’t do this. The remarkable skill of one Edward Gero, an actor who has received numerous Helen Hayes awards and nominations, one of them for this role, so effortlessly carries them out.
Gero, who researched Antonin Scalia for more than a year, was actually fortunate enough to have lunch with him, after witnessing the Justice up close and personal during an argument in court. In a 2015 interview with the New York Times, Gero remarked about Scalia…
“He’s got a wonderful speaking voice. He knows how to keep the vocal energy going to the end of the thought. He lands the idea. He uses pitch. He uses inflection.”
Gero told the New York Times during the play’s Washington run, that his visit with Scalia was “crucial” to his performance.
“He doesn’t make eye contact when he’s listening,” he said. “He shuts down the visual. And really a lot of his energy is focused on his ears. And then when he comes to the point, then he’ll pounce. The other thing that struck me was his fluency with the language, his ability to come up with phrases just like that,” Gero said, while snapping his fingers.
Jade Wheeler‘s Cat works extremely well with Gero’s Scalia. Her extremely passionate beliefs are her shield against being intimidated by his big bear, confrontational presence. And it is the power-play of her staunch liberalism against his unyielding conservatism that keeps this play moving to the point it doesn’t even feel like an hour-and-a-half has passed. The two continually butt heads over pending cases on gay marriage, abortion, and the right to bear arms and it is through Molly Smith’s excellent direction that the actors balance frustration and anger with hints of humanity…believably.
Danny Feldman, Artistic Director at Pasadena Playhouse says, ‘The Originalist’ is more than a play about a divisive judge. In his opinion, it is about the opportunity to set aside politics, come together and see one another as people, not parties.”
“One of the driving issues in the current political dysfunction is the inability of people with opposing views to come together and have healthy dialogue,” Feldman adds. “The theater is the perfect setting for us to come together and not only be entertained, but to try to find understanding and respect on all sides. This is a great opportunity to open a dialogue, focused around a really powerful, relevant play.”
Hat’s off to the entire production staff! In particular, Misha Kachman‘s very simplistic scenic design, basically Scalia’s moving desk and a chair; even the “gun range” (go see the play, you’ll understand!) didn’t leave us wanting anything more. It was just enough. Smith’s fluid direction was again evidenced in how she had Cat handle costume changes as a new day/scene unfolded.
Cat doesn’t hesitate to challenge her boss at every opportunity. Even in her quiet moments, when she is just listening, her presence is strong. She, too, handles Strands incredibly well-written script with an experts ease. Wheeler actually returned to the role after its prior run at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida.
Brad, a staunch right-wing, Caucasian law clerk played agonizingly well by Brett Mack, was hired to assist Cat. He definitely leaves a mark. It turns out he and Cat have history, they went to school together, and it won’t take a thought criminal to sense his jealousy towards her, mainly due to the obvious attention and respect he sees Scalia has for her. He also makes attempts to undermine her to the boss at every opportunity. At one point Cat calls him an “ass kisser.” At another, we actually witness this. At one point he lashes out at Cat and says she only got the job because she’s “a minority.” This before dangling a “secret” something she has yet to reveal to her boss.
It stops her in her tracks.
In an interview with EURweb senior editor, DeBorah B. Pryor, Wheeler — who lauds an impressive body of work in both regional theatre and television — along with degrees in Drama and French, says men like “Brad” are nothing new to her.
“I went to school with some guys like the Brad character in the play and heard a lot of the same things he says, and then some.”
We spoke of the tumultuous state of society today, and Wheeler shared this, along with what it was that attracted her to the role of Cat.
“Our current polarized climate, in my opinion, has been in the works for years, and has finally come to a head. This is art reflecting life. My attraction to the role of Cat is that it is not easy – you have to really dig and work for the payoff. There’s a lot to sift through, a lot to mine. I love her thoughtfulness, intelligence, curiosity and courage. It’s the sort of role I crave.”
The Pasadena Playhouse is not treating this like a regular production. The theatre has actually partnered with schools and is allowing 2,000 students to attend The Originalist as part of the student matinee program. Further, following every performance (or most) the audience is invited to stay and engage in dialogue.
Change. It’s gotta start somewhere, right? Why not at the Pasadena Playhouse?
I was curious, since Wheeler has done this role prior to its presentation at California’s State Theatre, how an actor keeps a role fresh.
“The freshness comes, I think, naturally. Having had time off allows for the past production to settle and breathes a new breath into this current production. It is wonderful to have Molly Smith, the director, back to continue guiding me and, of course, my scene partners, who are also bringing a new energy.”
“I am so excited to return to this play in a new city! Pasadena audiences will be different from our audiences at Asolo Rep (Sarasota, FL) and from future audiences in Washington DC’s Arena Stage and Chicago’s The Court Theatre. I am not sure that I can put expectations on Cat, but my hope is that she matures like a nice red wine and gets better with age.”
Actors would want to know, I am sure, about how the prep for such a role went down? What kind of audition piece does one choose to nail it?
“The audition pieces were sides from the play. It was one of the toughest audition preps I have done -not only in translating the ‘legalese’, but also working on the arguments. To shape them and have clear actions when I entered the audition room, was a welcome challenge. I’m not sure if any monologue in my bag would’ve risen to the occasion!
‘The Originalist’ A 5-STAR PLAY, is at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, California. Performance schedule is Tuesday – Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (Notes: There are no Tuesday performances on April 18 and 25. There will be one Sunday evening performance at 7:00 p.m. on April 30.) Tickets range from $25 – $80 with premiere seats at $115. Tickets are available online at PasadenaPlayhouse.org, by phone at 626-356-7529 or at The Pasadena Playhouse Box Office (39 South El Molino Avenue).
The Pasadena Playhouse began in 1917 and was recognized by the State Legislature as the State Theater of California in 1937 for bringing national and international renown to the state as a center for dramatic art in 1937.
About the Editor…
DeBorah B. Pryor began her career as a writer in the early 1970’s interviewing R&B legends backstage at the Apollo Theater. Today she is a Senior Editor at EURweb and Managing Editor at the pubs sister site, EURThisNthat. Previously, she was West Coast Editor for the music trade publication Black Radio Exclusive (B.R.E.). In the past, she worked in public relations at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and was once personal assistant to music legend, Sly Stone. She has a degree in Drama from San Francisco State University and worked in Equity theatre for nearly two decades. After reaching her 2,000th ride as a driver with the rideshare company, Uber,she has penned her first book. To learn more about it, reach out to her on Twitter @bleedingheart1k