Ed­ward Gero’s supreme chal­lenge

The ac­tor says chan­nel­ing Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia in ‘The Orig­i­nal­ist’ at Arena Stage has ‘re­ally raised my game’

The Washington Post Sunday - - THEATER - BY MAIA SIL­BER style@wash­post.com

More than two years af­ter its world pre­miere in 2015, John Strand’s po­lit­i­cal drama “The Orig­i­nal­ist” has re­turned to Wash­ing­ton’s Arena Stage. The play, which runs to July 30 at Arena’s Kreeger The­ater, imag­ines the con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia (Ed­ward Gero) and a lib­eral Har­vard Law School clerk (Jade Wheeler) as the Supreme Court pre­pares to hear the land­mark same-sex mar­riage case United States v. Wind­sor.

Gero spoke to The Wash­ing­ton Post about repris­ing his role, Scalia’s legacy and the value of bi­par­ti­san dis­course to­day.

Q. In the two years since the pre­miere of “The Orig­i­nal­ist,” our coun­try has wit­nessed both a tu­mul­tuous pres­i­den­tial election and the death of Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia. Have the events of the past two years shaped the play’s mean­ing for you? A. John [Strand] had writ­ten a play on the ques­tion, “Is there a po­lit­i­cal mid­dle?” I think that ques­tion has been an­swered for the mo­ment: There is no po­lit­i­cal mid­dle. The po­lit­i­cal bases are com­pletely deaf. No one is lis­ten­ing. But this is a play about lis­ten­ing. Here are two ar­che­typal char­ac­ters who rep­re­sent the far ends of the spec­trum. But they come to each other with re­spect, and an in­ci­sive ear. We opened the play in Florida, on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day, and peo­ple just strag­gled into the the­ater. They came out with a sense of hope.

Q. To pre­pare for your role in “The Orig­i­nal­ist,” you spent a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time meet­ing with Jus­tice Scalia, read­ing his opin­ions and watch­ing him in court. What is it like in­hab­it­ing Scalia’s char­ac­ter af­ter his death? How are you re­flect­ing on his legacy now? A. I miss the sto­ries. I was ex­pect­ing years more of sto­ries to tell. [Af­ter Jus­tice Scalia’s death,] I felt an im­me­di­ate loss, and also a loss for our coun­try. I didn’t agree with him, but he didn’t care. In fact, he was af­fec­tion­ate with the peo­ple who didn’t agree with him, be­cause he would ar­gue with them. He was so trans­par­ent, so con­sis­tent, and had enor­mous re­spect for lan­guage and words. He spent his en­tire life in the vine­yard of lan­guage and the law. And that re­spect for lan­guage seems to be at the way­side for the mo­ment.

Q. A ma­jor theme of “The Orig­i­nal­ist” is the need to reach across par­ti­san lines. But as you said, the “po­lit­i­cal mid­dle” seems to be grow­ing nar­rower and nar­rower th­ese days. Do you think the play it­self can chal­lenge set opin­ions? A. I have a deep sense of mis­sion about it, in a way: as an artist, to rise to the level of cit­i­zen-artist, and con­trib­ute to the ex­per­i­ment. I’ve done over 100 per­for­mances now, and I find my­self re­lax­ing a bit more and lis­ten­ing to the au­di­ence. De­pend­ing on how they re­spond to some of his ut­ter­ances, I can sense the Scalia in me want­ing to press them, and maybe hit them a lit­tle harder with the stuff they don’t want to hear, be­cause that’s ex­actly what he would do. It’s great when the au­di­ence laughs, and it’s great when they groan, be­cause I can tell ex­actly what side of the aisle they’re on. But by the end of the play, you get the sense that au­di­ences are shift­ing their stereo­types of [Scalia]. They may not agree with him, but they get a sense of who he was as a hu­man be­ing. That might lead them to re­think their own con­tri­bu­tion to the dis­course.

Q. Do you find your­self chan­nel­ing Jus­tice Scalia in real life? A. I’ve been em­pow­ered by liv­ing in the role. [Scalia] re­ally raised my game. In our cor­re­spon­dence, I would check and dou­ble-check and edit, to make sure ev­ery­thing was gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect, and try to be el­e­gant. In talk­ing to peo­ple, I would look for flaws in the ar­gu­ment and sup­port for the ar­gu­ment. I wouldn’t be so ea­ger to say “You’re wrong.” Peo­ple ask me, “What would Scalia say about this?” I have no clue. It would only de­value his in­tel­li­gence. I would never pre­sume to know that.

Q. You’ve also per­formed in over 70 pro­duc­tions at Wash­ing­ton’s Shake­speare The­atre. How has your ex­pe­ri­ence as a Shake­spearean ac­tor pre­pared you for this role? A. [Shake­speare’s] plays are about the trans­for­ma­tion of the hu­man spirit, and the pos­si­bil­ity of grow­ing be­yond your­self, shed­ding your skin, rein­vent­ing your­self, and open­ing your mind through ar­che­typal char­ac­ters, large ideals and big ques­tions. Those are often ques­tions of law. One of the things I found about [Scalia] was that he had great per­for­ma­tive abil­ity. When I spent time with him, he just came out with th­ese long, com­plex sen­tences with­out so much as a thought, with in­cred­i­ble flu­ency. It’s like lis­ten­ing to Shake­speare, it re­ally is . . . the gram­mar, the syn­tax, all those things.

Q. What are your goals as an ac­tor now? A. In many ways, this role is a syn­the­sis of my en­tire life ex­pe­ri­ence: Ital­ian Amer­i­can, Ro­man Catholic, New Jer­sey, all of that. Ev­ery­thing seemed to come to­gether with this role. So I’m not done, and I hope not to be done for a long time. It’s too im­por­tant a time in the repub­lic to not do some­thing as sub­stan­tive as this. I feel a sense of call­ing about it — to rep­re­sent his legacy in some way. I’m happy to con­tinue read­ing, go­ing back to the Fed­er­al­ist Papers. I miss be­ing at the [Supreme] Court. And I’m very grate­ful to bring it back to Wash­ing­ton. I’ve in­vited Jus­tice [Neil] Gor­such. I don’t know if he’ ll come.

This in­ter­view has been con­densed and edited for clar­ity.

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ed­ward Gero as Supreme Court Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia, pho­tographed dur­ing the world pre­miere of “The Orig­i­nal­ist” at Arena Stage in Fe­bru­ary 2015. John Strand’s po­lit­i­cal drama has re­turned to Arena, where it will run un­til July 30.

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