The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s legacy, in part, lies with one man who had a very unique friendship with him: Edward Gero who plays Scalia in “The Originalist,” which returns July 7 to Arena Stage.
“I feel myself, in a way, representing the legacy of Scalia and all those great characteristics that he had as an intellectual, as a lover of language, as a grammarian, as a philosopher,” Gero said.
The acclaimed stage actor started studying Scalia several years ago, primarily through lunch meetings, before he first played the conservative jurist onstage in March 2015. Scalia died suddenly in February 2016.
“The very first thing he said to me, in fact, was, ‘I just want you to know, I’m not coming to see the play, but I’m glad they got someone good to do it so I won’t be embarrassed. Let’s have lunch,’” Gero recalled.
His insight into the legendary figure that was Scalia is broad: from understanding his “great sense of humor” to knowing he had no intention of retiring.
Asked if he thought Scalia planned to stay on the bench until he died, Gero replied, “Yeah.”
Scalia never saw the play. He joked that he didn’t want Gero to tell him negative things the audience had to say.
“I’ve done a lot of characters in Shakespeare that audiences love to hate,” Gero said. He said he told Scalia, “You’re the first character I’ve ever done that audiences hate to love.”
But Gero added, “He was flattered, I think, that there was a play about him.”
The actor has been performing Shakespeare for more than 40 years.
“[Scalia’s] love of language mirrored my love,” he said. “It’s quite extraordinary for me. It’s an ongoing process. It’s been one of the most enriching experiences, probably the most enriching.”
Gero and Scalia found common ground in their time together.
“[Like] being an Italian-American myself, being born in New Jersey, being Roman Catholic, understanding the story of the son of immigrants,” he said. “We share a real culture and I think he appreciated that. He called me his doppelganger. I think we enjoyed each other as coming from similar backgrounds.”
Scalia’s grandmother and Gero’s grandfather came from nearby villages, in the mountains near the Amalfi Coast.
While the play hasn’t changed since Scalia’s death, its meaning has.
“The power of the play and it’s relevance is growing with each passing day,” Gero said. “This play offers a … model of behavior. I think there’s a sense in this country that both political bases are deaf. No one’s listening to begin with.”
“Discourse is about listening,” he added.
The play is primarily about Scalia’s relationship with Cat, a young, liberal law clerk who has just graduated from Harvard Law School. She starts her clerkship for Scalia butting heads with her notoriously conservative boss. Through their arguments, he becomes a mentor and she proves herself valuable to his decisions.
“How will their relationship affect one of the most incendiary cases ever to reach the nation’s highest court?” Arena Stage teases on its website.
The play was recommissioned as part of the theater’s Power Plays initiative, which also involves developing 25 new shows over the next 10 years, all about politics and power.
Since its premiere at Arena Stage in 2015, it was extended twice due to popular demand and has also been performed already this season in Sarasota, Florida, and Pasadena, California. After the D.C. run ends July 30, it will move to Chicago’s Court Theatre.