Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Among the vast array of theaters in the Twin Cities, Open Window hold a unique niche. To quote from their website, they were founded "for the purpose of bringing multi-generational professional theater with a redemptive vision to the Twin Cities. We focus on telling relevant stories of faith, hope, and reconciliation..." Other companies may mount shows which contain these values but have not claimed them as the over-riding purpose for their being.
The Originalist tells the story of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, known as an arch conservative as well as a devout Catholic, and a brash, progressive, Black woman, fresh out of Harvard Law School, who clerked for Justice Scalia for a year. To the best of my knowledge, the character of the clerk, named Kat, is fictional, though it is known that Scalia, and other Supreme Court Justices, have employed what they call "counter-clerks"–a judicial clerk whose views are polar opposite to the justice, for the purpose of keeping said justice in constant practice at countering opposing arguments. This makes it especially important that a "counter-clerk "be extremely sharp, to hold their own and push their justice to expand their prowess on the bench.
From my perspective, The Originalist is far more tethered to politics than to faith, but faith is an element. It turns out that Kat is a fallen-away Catholic–fallen quite far away from practicing any faith. Justice Scalia challenges her on this score and tries to reel her back into the fold. He succeeds in at least bringing Kat around to have respect for his religiosity and to finding spiritual solace by attending a performance of Mozart's "Requiem" in an immense, beautiful cathedral as a way to find comfort when Kat's beloved, long-comatose father dies. The scene has both Kat and Scalia kneeling on prayer benches, bathed in the reflection of colored lights from a stained-glass window, as the Mozart is played. The sounds and images could certainly touch anyone with the smallest morsel of a spiritual bent to feel it swell within them. The scene also affords the playwright an opportunity to show a tender side of Scalia, not only wrapped up in prayer, but comforting his grieving judicial clerk, whose politics he abhors.
In the course of the play, Scalia makes strong arguments for his conservative positions–strong, that is, if you accept his premise that the U.S. Constitution is meant to be understood literally, word by word, as written by the founding fathers. That is the source of the term "originalist," as in, the original intent of the founders, and Scalia made no bones about being an ardent originalist. Of course, if you reject that premise and believe that the founders created a framework for a new nation that would be a work in progress, a living document used continuously bring about, as written in the preamble, "a more perfect union," Scalia's arguments lose their force. That is exactly how Kat counters his positions.
In his legal arguments, Scalia offers precious little in the way of faith-based rationale–unlike what we hear espoused today among those who fall in the camp of Christian nationalists. Yet, somehow, there is an unspoken understanding that his devout faith is linked to his absolute commitment to originalism.
The play is well written and, allowing for a few bits that felt like dramatic contrivances, presents what seems like an authentic look at the dynamics between judges–or in this case, justices–and their clerks. The two actors inhabiting these roles gave wonderful performances, especially James Ramlet as Antonin Scalia. Ramlet's booming voice was put to great use in expressing Scalia's self-confidence and intransigence. He handily expressed anger and impatience, lightly tempered here and there with generosity and support, a slice of introspection (as when he recalled being overlooked for promotion to chief justice) and some dollops of comedy playwright Stand wisely inserted into what would otherwise be a long slog. Ramlet's performance gave the impression that the part was made to order for him.
Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle was excellent as Kat, whip smart and feisty in the justice's chambers, frail in her father's company, and, when alone, conflicted about working for the most hated (by many accounts at the time) conservative in the country. Unfortunately, she tended to race through her lines, with a very dense script (that happens when many exchanges involve legal citations) that on occasion failed to land in this rapt listener's ears. The third cast member, Jonah Smith, was fine as Brad, a former law school classmate and nemesis of Kat's, who Scalia brings in to assist with preparation for Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2014 case that resulted in the legalization of gay marriage. The character has little to do other than make Kat look so much better in comparison to that feckless dude–conservative, yes, but lacking convictions or scruples.
The theater was set in a galley configuration, the audience seated in tiered rows facing either side of a long, central playing space. Director Stephen O'Toole smoothly handled movement on and off stage and scene transitions and maintained the energy of a sparring match between the justice and his clerk for most of the play's two acts. Nate Farley's set design worked quite well, with a surprising amount of detail on the end of the stage where Scalia's desk was placed–such as the appropriate choice of dictionary, the American Heritage. Marybeth Schmid designed apt costumes, which included garb for a shooting range where Second Amendment champion Scalia takes gun control advocate Kat so that she can learn, as she puts it, "what it is I'm against." Sound (Jeremy Stanbary) and lighting (Olivia Lundsten) design served the production very well.
The Originalist premiered in 2015 at the Arena Stage in Washington DC, a year before Antonin Scalia died. The play was produced by the Pasadena Playhouse in 2017, with one performance broadcast live on PBS. It then played a month-long Off-Broadway run in 2018. It is a good play, with interesting insights into the life of a Supreme Court justice, and humanizes a public figure who has been a lightning rod, a hero to the far right and a monster to the far left. Those who view Antonin Scalia as a monster may feel the play lets him off the hook. For others, it may be an opportunity to understand (without necessary agreeing with) the originalist perspective. Whatever the playwright's intent, The Originalist, if well done–as it was in the hands of Open Window–is well worth seeing.
Unfortunately, I had to cancel attending the opening night performance due to a brush with COVID-19 and was unable to reschedule until the closing weekend, so as I write this, The Originalist has already closed at Open Window. However, if you catch wind of another production being mounted, or can track down the PBS broadcast, you may be rewarded. Meanwhile, I was very gratified to finally make it to Open Window Theatre and look forward to the rest of their season offerings.
The Originalist ran September 30, 2022 October 30, 2022, at Open Window Theatre, 5300 S Robert Trail, Inver Grove Heights MN. For information, please call 651-647-4315 or visit openwindowtheatre.org.
Playwright: John Strand; Director: Stephen O'Toole; Scenic and Props Design: Nate Farley; Costume Design: Marybeth Schmid; Lighting Design: Olivia Lundsten; Sound Design: Jeremy Stanbary; Stage Manager: Lauren Volkart; Producer: Jeremy Stanbary
Cast: Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle (Cat), James Ramlet (Antonin Scalia), Jonah Smith (Brad)