More than two years after its world premiere in 2015, John Strand’s political drama “The Originalist” is returning to Washington’s Arena Stage. The play, which runs from July 7 to 30 at Arena’s Kreeger Theater, imagines the conversations between Justice Antonin Scalia (Edward Gero) and a liberal Harvard Law School clerk (Jade Wheeler) as the Supreme Court prepares to hear the landmark same-sex marriage case United States v. Windsor.
Gero spoke to The Washington Post about reprising his role, Scalia’s legacy and the value of bipartisan discourse today.
Q. In the two years since the premiere of “The Originalist,” our country has witnessed both a tumultuous presidential election and the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Have the events of the past two years shaped the play’s meaning for you?
A. John [Strand] had written a play on the question, “Is there a political middle?” I think that question has been answered for the moment: There is no political middle. The political bases are completely deaf. No one is listening. But this is a play about listening. Here are two archetypal characters who represent the far ends of the spectrum. But they come to each other with respect, and an incisive ear. We opened the play in Florida, on Inauguration Day, and people just straggled into the theater. They came out with a sense of hope.
Q. To prepare for your role in “The Originalist,” you spent a significant amount of time meeting with Justice Scalia, reading his opinions and watching him in court. What is it like inhabiting Scalia’s character after his death? How are you reflecting on his legacy now?
A. I miss the stories. I was expecting years more of stories to tell. [After Justice Scalia’s death,] I felt an immediate loss, and also a loss for our country. I didn’t agree with him, but he didn’t care. In fact, he was affectionate with the people who didn’t agree with him, because he would argue with them. He was so transparent, so consistent, and had enormous respect for language and words. He spent his entire life in the vineyard of language and the law. And that respect for language seems to be at the wayside for the moment.
Q. A major theme of “The Originalist” is the need to reach across partisan lines. But as you said, the “political middle” seems to be growing narrower and narrower these days. Do you think the play itself can challenge set opinions?
A. I have a deep sense of mission about it, in a way: as an artist, to rise to the level of citizen-artist, and contribute to the experiment. I’ve done over 100 performances now, and I find myself relaxing a bit more and listening to the audience. Depending on how they respond to some of his utterances, I can sense the Scalia in me wanting to press them, and maybe hit them a little harder with the stuff they don’t want to hear, because that’s exactly what he would do. It’s great when the audience laughs, and it’s great when they groan, because I can tell exactly what side of the aisle they’re on. But by the end of the play, you get the sense that audiences are shifting their stereotypes of [Scalia]. They may not agree with him, but they get a sense of who he was as a human being. That might lead them to rethink their own contribution to the discourse.
Q. Do you find yourself channeling Justice Scalia in real life?
A. I’ve been empowered by living in the role. [Scalia] really raised my game. In our correspondence, I would check and double-check and edit, to make sure everything was grammatically correct, and try to be elegant. In talking to people, I would look for flaws in the argument and support for the argument. I wouldn’t be so eager to say “You’re wrong.” People ask me, “What would Scalia say about this?” I have no clue. It would only devalue his intelligence. I would never presume to know that.
Q. You’ve also performed in over 70 productions at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre. How has your experience as a Shakespearean actor prepared you for this role?
A. [Shakespeare’s] plays are about the transformation of the human spirit, and the possibility of growing beyond yourself, shedding your skin, reinventing yourself, and opening your mind through archetypal characters, large ideals and big questions. Those are often questions of law. One of the things I found about [Scalia] was that he had great performative ability. When I spent time with him, he just came out with these long, complex sentences without so much as a thought, with incredible fluency. It’s like listening to Shakespeare, it really is . . . the grammar, the syntax, all those things.
Q. What are your goals as an actor now?
A. In many ways, this role is a synthesis of my entire life experience: Italian American, Roman Catholic, New Jersey, all of that. Everything seemed to come together with this role. So I’m not done, and I hope not to be done for a long time. It’s too important a time in the republic to not do something as substantive as this. I feel a sense of calling about it — to represent his legacy in some way. I’m happy to continue reading, going back to the Federalist Papers. I miss being at the [Supreme] Court. And I’m very grateful to bring it back to Washington. I’ve invited Justice [Neil] Gorsuch. I don’t know if he’ll come.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.