WASHINGTON (AP) — Actor Edward Gero has spent a lot of time in court over the past year — the Supreme Court to be exact — watching, studying and listening to one justice in particular, seeing how he behaves.
Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, is one of the court’s most conservative, outspoken and polarizing characters, and now those qualities are providing the ingredients for a new play. Washington’s Arena Stage is developing “The Originalist” about Scalia with a story delving into some of the biggest issues and court dramas of this era, from gun rights to gay marriage.
The new play, which begins previews Friday and will run March 19 through April 26, promises a unique mix of politics and entertainment, reflecting arguments Americans wrestle with nationwide. For Gero, it’s about capturing one compelling character while he has the rare opportunity to bring a sitting, political figure to the stage.
Gero shares a natural resemblance with Scalia. He has studied the justice in court, through videos and over lunch in Scalia’s chambers.
“My job as an actor was to find the connections. Certainly there are many, being Italian-American, being Roman Catholic, being from the Northeast. I was raised in Jersey. He was born in Jersey, raised in New York,” Gero said of their chat. “By the end of the hour, I felt like I was just hanging out with Uncle Nino. I know the behavior.”
They didn’t talk politics or about the play. It was simply time to get to know each other. Gero said he hopes to capture Scalia’s humor and intelligence, along with his fast-talking style.
“He’s a big man with big ideas,” Gero said. “When he listens, he’ll close and sort of shut down his eyes in order to heighten his sense of listening, and then when he grabs onto something, he launches and there’s a real energy in his upper body. So I’m trying to capture that physically.”
In the past, Gero has played at least one other political figure: President Richard Nixon. He has extensive credits in regional theater and has played many Shakespearean roles. His film credits include “Die Hard 2” and “Striking Distance.”
Scalia, the court’s longest-serving current justice, declined to be interviewed about the play. Speaking at an event last month with NPR, Scalia said he doesn’t plan to see a performance and was perhaps wary of how he would be portrayed.
“It’s OK; I mean what can they do? They’re going to write what they write,” he said.
All the justices have been invited to a performance, and some are expected to attend.
In the rehearsal hall, two walls are lined with pictures of Scalia like a timeline of his life since he was appointed to the court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. There are also images from one pivotal moment — rainbow flags waiving outside the nation’s highest court. For the story set between 2011 and 2013, the decision striking down the ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages figures prominently. Scalia wrote a fiery dissent in the case.
Playwright John Strand said his goal was to build a story around two people — Scalia and a young law clerk — who passionately disagree on all the big issues.
“How could two people of opposite political viewpoints begin to understand one another?” Strand said. “If we start with someone who is renowned for being on the extremes of viewpoints —whether that’s accurate or not, that is his reputation — then we might have an interesting thematic situation.”
In one scene, Scalia and his clerk debate gun rights.
“Americans own 300 million guns, and 54 million are semi-automatics. What do you need that kind of firepower for unless you’re being attacked by a T. rex?” the clerk argues.
“Irrelevant to the Second Amendment text,” Scalia says, citing the original intent of the Constitution’s writers.
“I’d argue there is too much gun violence,” the clerk said.
“The reason?” Scalia asks.
“Too many guns.”
“Wrong,” Scalia says. “Violence is a trait of the human species. … Guns are in the national DNA, like it or not.”
Later the play delves into same-sex marriage. “It’s something that I think is on people’s minds,” the playwright said.
Molly Smith, the show’s director who married her longtime partner, Suzanne, last year in a ceremony officiated by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said marriage is a defining issue of our time. The court is taking up the larger issue of same-sex marriage April 28, just after the show closes.
In the past, theaters often avoided current issues and left that to film, but this play changes that for Smith, a self-described political animal.
“I think as artists if we aren’t involved in the present moment, what are we doing?” she said.
Strand said he tried to be fair toward Scalia. He hopes audiences will be moved. He wants them to be angry, to argue but also to laugh.
“It was never my intention to do a hatchet job on Antonin Scalia,” he said. “I didn’t set out to offend, but inevitably we will. If we’re really looking into these issues, inevitably we will.”