For anyone who finds the persona of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia a little bit theatrical, Arena Stage thinks it has found the perfect play. Next season, the company will stage the world premiere of a three-actor drama in which the main character is Scalia.
“The Originalist,” by D.C. playwright John Strand, is the rarest of theater pieces, one that looks to mine box-office gold in the life and work of a sitting Supreme Court justice. The play, scheduled to run in Arena’s Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle starting March 6, 2015, will star Edward Gero, known for his classical roles at Shakespeare Theatre Company — and for playing Scrooge in Ford’s Theatre’s annual “A Christmas Carol” — as the politically conservative justice.
Based in part on Scalia’s written opinions, the play, according to Strand, will pit the justice in intellectual duels with a young and fictionalized Harvard-trained law clerk of more liberal leanings. Act 2 will focus heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision last year to strike down a key part of the controversial Defense of Marriage Act.
Scalia cast a dissenting vote in the 5 to 4 ruling.
Building a play around an American figure of conservative values is a rarity in a theater world where the political messaging tends toward a liberal worldview. (The more conservative political perspective espoused of late in the plays of David Mamet is one of the few exceptions.) And dramatic portraits of famous judges usually take as subjects jurists who have already left the stage, as exemplified by the 2008 “Thurgood,” a one-man show that featured Laurence Fishburne as the late justice Thurgood Marshall.
In interviews, Strand and Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith, who will direct “The Originalist,” said this account is not so much intended as a critical reckoning of Scalia as an opportunity to delve into the condition of political discourse in this country and why deep divisions on issues have become so fraught with anger and bitterness.
“Because we’ve become so polarized politically, I think that that’s part of where we’re going with this character in the play,” Strand said. “Is there a middle ground anymore, and how do you get there? If we’re going to see the person on the other side only as a monster, then there will never be a middle, a compromise.”
Strand, whose stage work has included a well-received adaptation of a 19th-century French play, “Lorenzaccio,” for Shakespeare Theatre Company, said the strong feelings Scalia arouses across the political spectrum made him an ideal focal point for the piece: “He has intrigued me for a long time because he’s kind of a lightning rod. Half the country thinks of him as a monster and half thinks of him as a hero. I love to explore why that is. And how can you resist a character who’s a brilliant jurist and also a showman at heart?”
Because the piece is not strictly a biographical drama, the playwright said, he did not feel it necessary to tell Scalia that he was writing a play about him. Nor, Smith said, did Arena try to contact him. Still, Strand is curious about what he might think.
“I hope he’ll come,” he said.
A spokesman for Scalia said that he declined to comment.
“The Originalist” is one of five world-premiere plays Arena will unveil in its nine-production 2014-15 season. The others are “The Shoplifters” by Morris Panych; “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” by Ken Ludwig; “The Blood Quilt” by Katori Hall; and “Our War,” an evening of brief monologues about the Civil War by 25 playwrights, including Pulitzer Prize winners Lynn Nottage and David Lindsay-Abaire.
The season will also include revivals of the musicals “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Five Guys Named Moe”; the Washington premiere of Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” and a revival of August Wilson’s “King Hedley II.”