Heidi Schreck’s shrewd civics lesson is all about human rights and wrongs
Theater review by Kris Vire
What a week to see What the Constitution Means to Me.
Heidi Schreck’s sort-of-solo play, about her real-life teenage years debating the Constitution at American Legion halls for scholarship money and her more complicated feelings about the foundational document now, has followed a well-deserved but unlikely path through the American theater. It premiered less than three years ago in an 89-seat theater in New York’s East Village, part of Clubbed Thumb’s 2017 Summerworks festival; was picked up for runs at Berkeley Rep and New York Theatre Workshop in 2018; and moved to Broadway in 2019, earning Tony nominations for best play and best actress and becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
And now it’s one of the rare Broadway plays to get a national tour (and one of the rare legitimate plays that sits comfortably in the Broadway Playhouse). This relatively accelerated trajectory, in an industry that often moves at a glacial pace, speaks to Constitution’s urgent immediacy.
Heidi enters the stage as herself (though here she’s played by the inviting actor Maria Dizzia, a fact which is eventually acknowledged in the text), conversationally relating the circumstances that led her 15-year-old self to address audiences of mostly white male veterans about what the Constitution meant to her. She tells us she wants to try to recreate the speech she might have given—at which point she’s joined onstage by a Legionnaire moderator (played by Mike Iveson, reprising his role from the Broadway production) who lays out rules and times Heidi’s speeches.
Maria Dizzia and Mike Iveson
Heidi moves back and forth between her teenage and middle-aged selves, lacing commentary about the founders and the amendment process with personal stories about the women and abusive men in her own family history, as well as data-driven analyses of Supreme Court decisions like 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut, a birth-control case that established the right-to-privacy precedent that would later make possible other landmark decisions from Roe v. Wade to Obergefell v. Hodges.
With a careful balance of dramatic tools—a shrewd lack of artifice among her sharpest—Schreck crafts a powerful overarching argument about the Constitution’s construction, its particular failings to consider the rights of anyone other than straight white male landowners, and the fallibility of its interpreters. (Justice Antonin Scalia and his syntactic nitpicking come in for a well-deserved drubbing.)
The play certainly hasn’t lacked for real-world resonances through its short life so far. The NYTW production in 2018 opened in the immediate wake of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and my colleague Helen Shaw noted that Schreck was fighting tears throughout the performance she reviewed.
It was no less charged Friday night at the Broadway Playhouse. Just the day before, the last viable woman candidate had dropped out of this year’s presidential race. The day before that, a reconfigured Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a Louisiana case (June Medical Services LLC v. Russo) that some are predicting is the beginning of the end of Roe.
But Schreck, further doing away with the fourth wall, ends on a hopeful note: Each performance closes with Dizzia facing off against an actual high-school debater. (Jocelyn Shek, who performed Friday night, alternates performances with Rosdely Ciprian, a veteran of the Broadway cast.) Arguing the merits of keeping our 230-year-old document versus tearing it up and starting fresh, the kids make a strong case for what the Constitution means to them—and you walk out of the theater feeling a little better about the nation’s future.
What the Constitution Means to Me
Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place (175 E Chestnut St). By Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler.
Cast: Maria Dizzia, Mike Iveson, Rosdely Ciprian, Jocelyn Shek.
Designers: Rachel Hauck (scenic), Michael Krass (costumes), Jen Schriever (lighting), Sinan Refik Zafar (sound), Mealah Heidenreich (props/set dressing), Max Fabian (violence/intimacy design). Dramaturg: Sarah Lunnie. Stage manager: Nicole Olson.
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission. Through April 12. Tickets ($30–$105) at broadwayinchicago.com.
Photographs by Joan Marcus.
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