In WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME, playwright Heidi Schreck has pulled off one of the most challenging feats in theater: The seamless blending of the personal and the universal. And the result is remarkable. In the play, Schreck reconstructs the speech she gave at age fifteen about the U.S. Constitution in competitions across the country; she was able to win enough of these contests to pay for her entire college education. The play evolves into an examination of what the Constitution has meant to Schreck at various points in her life, from her initial awe in high school to her present-day questioning of whether this esteemed American document actually protects the rights of all citizens. It’s a blistering examination of our country’s frequent failure to protect the rights of women and minorities (and particularly Native Americans), partly as relayed by Schreck’s inclusion of some haunting stories about the history of the women in her family.
And while Schreck recounts great trauma and suffering and asks some deeply probing questions about the Constitution’s function in modern-day America, the play easily avoids becoming maudlin or didactic. It has neither of those qualities. In fact, Schreck’s script and Oliver Butler’s well-timed direction yield a play that is supremely funny and energizing. Schreck has a unique sense of humor that holds up across the play, shifting from serious inquiries about the Constitution to a recurring theme about her teenage love of Patrick Swayze and DIRTY DANCING. The play sustains this duality, suggesting that humor is a powerful defense mechanism.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME is not only unique because of its subject matter, but also because of its presentational style. The play is highly metatheatrical and acknowledges that it is, in fact, a piece of theater at many points. While this technique can be cheesy, Schreck manages to avoid that altogether. Instead, this continual breaking of the fourth wall contributes to the play’s irreverence.
This becomes all the more interesting because of the casting for this touring production. While Schreck originally played herself in the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, Maria Dizzia now assumes the role of Heidi. This adds yet another layer to the metatheatrical in the production that Chicago audiences can now see. And Dizzia introduces herself at the end of the play, alongside fellow actor Mike Iveson, who represents the American legionnaires that would judge the contests in which Heidi participated. In fact, Iveson gives a stunning monologue that allows audiences to learn more about him.
The material in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME is inherently rich and masterful, but Dizzia’s performance takes it all to the next level. She easily wins audiences over from the moment she appears onstage, making Heidi’s inherent affability immediately clear. Dizzia’s portrayal of Heidi at fifteen is humorous and lighthearted, comprising that simultaneous confidence and insecurity that many teenage girls feel. So much of the power in Dizzia’s performance comes from the fact that she can simultaneously sustain this humor without ever compromising on the darker, deeply felt emotions in the play’s more traumatic, serious moments. Dizzia switches between these two modes, sometimes within a single beat, and makes them both feel equally real and integral to the play.
The production design for WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME also speaks to the play’s irreverence. Rachel Hauck’s scenic design cleverly reconstructs an American Legion hall in Schreck’s hometown of Wenatchee, Washington, with its dark, aged wood and rows and rows of portraits of white men (an and important intentional detail). Michael Krass’s costume designs recreate Schreck’s signature competition outfit, prominently featuring a cheery yellow blazer. Listen closely during the pre-show, as Sinan Refik Zafar’s music choices provide a prime example of what I like to call “sound designers having fun.” You’ll notice songs like Lizzo’s “Like A Girl” playing before the play starts, which playfully calls attention to the questions Schreck will later pose in the play about women in America and constitutional rights.
The play also has a clever coda, in which Dizzia debates whether to keep or abolish the
competition with a high school student. On opening night, I saw the formidable high school freshman Jocelyn Shek take on Dizzia for the debate, with unwavering confidence (Shek alternates with Rosdely Ciprian). The debaters prepare in advance, but the sides they will argue are chosen the night of the performance. It’s a fantastic and hopeful way to conclude the show.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME is a theatrical masterpiece. In it, Schreck probes some keen questions about the Constitution and whether it offers sufficient rights to women and minorities. She also beautifully relays some personal stories and demonstrates her own changed understanding of the document throughout her life. By doing this, Schreck makes those final two words in the play’s title all the more pivotal; she asks questions, but nothing she presents in the play is posited as definitive. Rather, Schreck demonstrates that that’s precisely the point of debate: For us to realize that we should not take anything for granted, that we should challenge and probe and ask questions about the state of America today and the foundational document upon which the country was built. WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME beautifully reminds us that the political is personal and the personal is political—and that’s a point that could not be more resonant right now.
Broadway In Chicago’s engagement of WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME runs through April 12 at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 East Chestnut. Tickets are $30-$105. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com or call 800.775.2000.
Photos courtesy of Margie Korshak, Inc.
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com