Wednesday January 16 12:16 pm

Spotlighting events along the south shore of Lake Michigan

Meet the 'Kinder, Gentler' Antonin Scalia in Court Theatre's "The Originalist"


Over the years, I’ve developed a personal rating system for theaters. My criteria include comfortable seats, leg room, enough stalls in the women’s bathroom and parking. The Court is relatively high on my list, but since I can barely make it through an hour without stretching out my knee, leg room is the issue there. I’m happy to say that “The Originalist” was so interesting and engaging that I almost didn’t notice it was nearly two hours without a stretch!

For many law school graduates, a chance to clerk for a Supreme Court Justice is an almost certain path to a cushy job with a prestigious law firm. “The Originalist” is framed around the relationship between Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (Edward Gero) and his clerk, Cat (Jade Wheeler), who has liberal views diametrically opposed to those of her boss.

While I enjoyed the play, I wanted to find out if Scalia would even have a liberal clerk. When I researched Scalia’s clerks, I found an op-ed in the Washington Post written by Tara Kole, a partner in a prestigious California law firm and lecturer at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, who wanted to clerk for him. She wrote, “…Justice Scalia was the person for whom I most wanted to work, not because we were ideologically aligned, but because we were not.” She went on to say, “What he cared about was the law, and where the words on the page took him. More than any one opinion, this will be his lasting contribution to legal thought. Whatever our beliefs, he forced lawyers and scholars to engage on his terms — textual analysis and original meaning.”

“The Originalist” begins with Scalia, wearing his judicial robes, conducting an opera. As the recording ends, he explains the relationship between the notes of an opera and the words of the constitution, with each made to be played as it is written.

From all accounts, Scalia had a habit of selecting a clerk with opposing views because he was tickled to have someone to spar with. Cat hoped to capitalize on that habit and become one of his clerks. Their interview established the parameters for their working relationship, she set out arguments, he shot them down. Their verbal repartee was delightful, and technically correct, according to my friend Crista, who is a lawyer.

Over time, as they found some common ground, their respect for each other grew. She helped him when he had some sort of an attack. He helped her when her father passed away. He even took her to a shooting range and introduced her to an assault rifle. The two shooting range scenes are the one part of the play I could have done without.

Factoids to keep in mind:
• Antonin Scalia believed that the Constitution left little to no room for interpretation
• Scalia wrote the majority opinion on District of Columbia vs Heller which struck down provisions of the Firearms Control Act as unconstitutional
• Scalia was the deciding vote on the Bush-Gore ‘hanging chads’ election
• Scalia considered himself the most qualified and actively campaigned to become Chief Justice
• Scalia was an opera aficionado
• Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg were dear friends (in spite of their differing views) who attended the opera together
• Scalia was a Catholic who went out of his way to attend Tridentine (Latin) mass

Strand’s Scalia reminded me of my mother, who thought a good argument was a sign of love. Since she thrived on verbal sparring, she’d often drop a controversial remark into a conversation, then take that position – whether she really believed it or not – and defend it to the end of time, if necessary. The difference, Scalia really believed he was always right!

Edward Gero and Jade Wheeler originated these roles at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Pasadena Playhouse and Arena Stage. Brett Mack plays Brad, a conservative law school grad who sucks up to his hero, Scalia. By the way, since Scalia once taught at the University of Chicago, I think he’d have been tickled to see a play written about him playing at the Court.

“The Originalist” runs through June 10th at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago. Parking is free in the garage next door to the Court – you have to take a ticket to enter but you won’t need it to exit, the gate stays up for 30 minutes after the performance.

Running time is 1 hour, 35 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00 pm; and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:00 pm. Tickets range from $44-$74. FYI (773) 753-4472 or