Heidi Schreck’s must-see play makes its local Chicago debut at TimeLine Theatre Company through July 2, 2023
Back in March 2020, WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME was one of the last plays I saw before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all live theater for almost two years. I thought Heidi Schreck’s play was a knockout at that time; it seamlessly interweaves the personal and the political, and she had a cathartic and devastating thesis about the Constitution’s shortcomings when it comes to protecting the rights of women (and especially women of color) in this country.
Schreck starts the play by bringing her 15-year-old self back to life onstage; as a teenager, she competed in speech competitions about the Constitution in order to save money for her college tuition. It begins as a recreation of that moment, and then unfolds into a sweeping portrait of how that document — and the associated American values—have affected the women in her family for generations—and how it has often failed them.
Although the script remains unchanged, CONSTITUTION is now even more of a gut punch to watch after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Schreck tackles big questions in CONSTITUTION, but she also shares deeply personal stories. Watching the play this time around, I was struck by how precisely Schreck captures the fragility of the rights supposedly guaranteed in the Constitution. If women aren’t even mentioned in the document, how then can the Supreme Court use that text to determine what women’s rights are guaranteed (or not) in it? To quote Schreck in the play, it’s a penumbra — a gray area. And that gray area has had devastating consequences for women in this country, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on Roe v. Wade.
Even without updates, the play remains prescient; it’s both intellectual and emotional, melancholy and also at times quite funny. Schreck understands the need to infuse levity in the text; her recurring theme about her teenage love of Patrick Swayze still delights.
Director Helen Young’s production for TimeLine Theatre Company gives the play a beautiful intimacy. In the original production, Schreck played herself. For TimeLine, Beth Lacke assumes the role of Heidi. Like the touring production I saw back in 2020, this lends an extra element of metatheatricality to the piece. Now, we see Lacke as Heidi as 15-year-old Heidi. Fortunately, it works well. Lacke gives an immensely warm and endearing performance. At the top of the play, she invites audiences in with a generous spirit and high energy. She captures Schreck’s intent in the text, but the performance never feels like an imitation. Her performance is truly emotional; Lacke seems to have a real connection to the text. This play calls on the actor playing Heidi to move from confidence to vulnerability on a dime, multiple times, and Lacke does precisely that.
While Lacke is the undisputedly star of the show, she’s in good company with Raymond Fox as the Legionnaire, a stand-in for the legionnaires that preceded over the speech competitions that Schreck participated in as a teen. Fox mainly plays the role of contest emcee, but then has a moment where he assumes the part of Mike Iveson (the original actor who played the role). As Iveson, Fox delivers a moving monologue about his own relationship to the misogyny that runs through American culture.
Ultimately, CONSTITUTION serves to give voice to the deeply rooted misogyny in American culture and into this nation’s founding document. After all, leaving women explicitly out of the Constitution is a misogynistic act in itself. While Schreck has a clear, hard-hitting thesis, this play is also deeply emotional. Lacke’s performance in the lead role really hammers that home.
While the play goes to dark places, CONSTITUTION also has an uplifting coda. Each night, Lacke debates with one of two young people. The topic? Whether or not the Constitution should be abolished. At the performance I saw, Lacke went head-to-head with Sophie Ackerman (who alternates with Makalah Simpson). Fox oversees the formal debate. It’s an energizing moment/ It’s also an interesting mirror to Schreck’s point that some of the Supreme Court’s deliberations seem more focused on semantics than the human lives of the American women they’re debating. The personal questions that Lacke and Ackerman ask each other following the debate, while sweet, are a less satisfying conclusion.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME is the kind of play that reminds me why I love theater. It’s intellectual, emotional, timely, and, admittedly as a white liberal American woman, makes me feel seen. Schreck has written a play that’s important without being self-important. TimeLine’s production, and especially Lacke’s performance, give CONSTITUTION a beating heart.
TimeLine Theatre Company’s WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME runs through July 2, 2023 at 615 West Wellington. Visit timelinetheatre.com.
Photo Credit: Brett Beiner
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com