As Antonin Scalia thunders from the right in “The Originalist” at Arena Stage, Thurgood Marshall now balances the scales with the liberal lovefest “Thurgood” at the Olney Theatre Center. If John Strand’s “The Originalist” softens the late conservative justice’s portrait, the purring “Thurgood” is pure hero worship.
The play is by George Stevens Jr., the longtime producer of the Kennedy Center Honors until his run was abruptly severed in 2014, and this script feels like an extended tribute to the country’s first African American Supreme Court justice. That didn’t keep “Thurgood” from making it to Broadway in 2008 and to the Kennedy Center two years later, both times with Laurence Fishburne as the civil rights icon. It also doesn’t keep Olney’s adoring audience from leaning in appreciatively as Marshall’s roots and pioneering career are recounted by the forceful Brian Anthony Wilson.
The stilted framework is a lecture at Howard University School of Law, with Marshall directly addressing us as he recalls pivotal moments in his ascent to the Supreme Court. Director Walter Dallas counters the unimaginative dramaturgy by drawing an energized performance from Wilson: The pace is brisk, the stories charge forth, and Wilson prowls the intimate lab space left and right. The performance is almost unnervingly quick, yet there’s no need to rush. Even with an intermission, this career overview is just 90 minutes long.
Wilson sweeps us through the key points, which are sometimes personal but which dwell mainly on the monumentally historical. Bedrock, Marshall instructs us, is Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case asserting that “separate but equal” was legal. Marshall’s raw experiences growing up in Jim Crow America counter that, and the wry yet combative Wilson is never better than when he fixes the audience with a direct look, talks about the n-word and explains the line where he is “going to have business with you.”
Untangling Plessy becomes a through-line as the story builds to Marshall’s role arguing Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954. Stevens uses that as his Act 1 cliffhanger, and darned if the play’s hokum doesn’t work. When the victorious decision is read denouncing “separate but equal,” the audience cheers. (The same thing happened during the Roe v. Wade decision moment in Lisa Loomer’s “Roe” at Arena Stage earlier this year. The high court is having quite a season on stage.)
Dallas buys into the Stevens playbook by adding period-setting projections and even using Hollywood-style music to sentimentally underscore triumphs. The history is complicated; the show is not. The Supreme Court career is not much explored, and the accomplished, intriguing man is reduced to his biggest hit. There’s a lot to feel good about while watching a solo show of Marshall, but little of it comes from this simplified, watery writing.
Thurgood by George Stevens Jr. Directed by Walter Dallas. Scenic designer, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Seth Gilbert; lights, Harold F. Burgess II; sound design, Roc Lee; projection design, Zachary G. Borovay. Through Aug. 20 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Tickets $45-$70. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.