Antonin Scalia was still alive and Barack Obama was president when John Strand’s fine play about the famously combative conservative Supreme Court justice—known for his vociferous opposition to affirmative action, Roe v. Wade, and all other elements of the progressive agenda and his devotion to preserving the supposed original intent of the framers of the Constitution—was first produced at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 2015. In the play, Strand takes pains to show us the man behind “the monster” (as Scalia calls himself). Yes, Scalia gleefully uses his bully pulpit on the Supreme Court to launch myriad fiery verbal assaults on liberal causes and any justices who support them. But he also likes Mozart and Bach and his liberal colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“She is brilliant.”).
Three years later, the world has turned upside down. Scalia is dead, Obama’s legacy is under siege, and there are “conservatives” in power who may pay lip service to Scalia’s originalism but who indulge in a much more radical and destabilizing kind of reactionary ideology. Suddenly Scalia, with his insistence on scholarship, integrity, consistency, and the rule of law, seems more teddy bear than monster. Especially the way Edward Gero, who originated the role in 2015, plays him here. The play’s premise could have been lifted from a 1940s screwball comedy—verbally adept conservative white male judge hires an equally verbally adept liberal, female, African-American law clerk (played ably here by Jade Wheeler, who also originated the role in 2015)—and Gero’s Scalia often feels like a Spencer Tracy to Wheeler’s Katharine Hepburn, though they never pair up. Still, their constant sparring does have a rom-com feel to it, and that adds yet another layer to this rich, fascinating, exceptionally well-written and well-acted play. v