When playwright Heidi Schreck was in high school, she traveled the country participating in Constitutional debate competitions. It was primarily a scheme cooked up by her mother to pay for college tuition with prize money (it worked), and she became an expert at defending or opposing various amendments to panels of judges that almost always consisted of exclusively old, white men. In What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck revisits her 15-year-old self with new perspective and wisdom, offering a deeply moving and immensely entertaining look at how the Constitution has affected not only her own life but the lives of three generations of women before her in her family.
After first premiering in 2017, What the Constitution Means to Me opened on Broadway in 2019 for a limited run, with Schreck playing herself. The version that opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles on Friday night features a tweaked text to reflect the fact that this time, actress Maria Dizzia is taking on the role of Heidi. The time period of the uniquely structured play bounces back and forth, alternating between Heidi’s present-day and high school selves. The format is deeply reflexive, regularly breaking the fourth wall, and for this reason, it feels like the right call that modifications to the text allow Dizzia to eventually introduce herself as the actress playing Heidi and add a couple personal anecdotes.
During the first portion of the show, Dizzia shares the stage with only one other actor, Mike Iveson (also in the Broadway production). He first plays the primarily silent role of a family friend and World War II veteran who accompanied young Schreck to her debates. At one point, Dizzia jokes that he does not have anything to add because he “does not have any lines,” and in a world where white men seemingly never shut up this is, to put it mildly, refreshing. Later Iveson transitions to playing himself, an out, gay man, and speaks briefly on his experiences with “classic” masculinity in society. Once the narrative about Schreck’s debate career and family history has concluded, the format shifts to a debate between Schreck and a high school debater (Rosdely Ciprian at the performance reviewed) on whether or not the Constitution should be abolished. Iveson serves as the moderator and an audience member is chosen to declare the winner.
Directed by Oliver Butler, Schreck’s text explores highly relevant, hot button issues from immigration to reproductive rights and domestic violence. At first, as we learn the rules of the debates she participated in as a teenager, you cannot help but wonder—how is it even possible for a 15-year-old to sensitively connect the Constitution to their own life, a life they have barely even lived yet? While this is, of course, part of what makes this highly specific choice of extracurricular activity amusing, it quickly becomes clear that young Heidi was wise beyond her years in large part thanks to the women who raised her, women who went through unspeakable horrors at the hands of men in their lives. Adult Heidi, born in the early 1970s, speaks of feeling survivor’s guilt, knowing that the lives of her great-grandmother, grandmother, and even her mother could have turned out very differently with the freedoms and legislation she was fortunate enough to grow up with.
It would be interesting to know how many men who buy a ticket to this play realize they’re walking into a piece that is pretty much wholly about feminist issues. After all, the Constitution as it was originally written only applied to white men who owned land, so it makes perfect sense that when tasked with drawing a personal connection to the document, identifying as female becomes the lens through which everything else must be viewed. Occasionally, audio clips from actual Supreme Court discussions are played, highlighting how a group of nine men once agreed to legalize birth control primarily because the Chief Justice at the time was dating a woman several decades his junior, and at least three others were known to be cheating on their wives.
The story gets especially sobering when statistics about the shocking prevalence of domestic violence are highlighted, which Heidi ties back to her own grandmother’s experiences. She speaks of “inherited trauma” within the legacy she comes from, and there are moments when Dizzia seems overcome with emotion from Heidi’s pain of reliving events that while she did not directly experience came to shape her entire worldview and existence. It is impressive that the production manages the tonal shift to the debate portion so deftly. The house lights come up and Ciprian, who has poise and charisma for days, is a worthy opponent for Dizzia, who seems to truly enjoy playing off her. Pocket copies of the Constitution are even distributed throughout the house so the audience can follow along, and it is a safe bet most people will learn a thing or two about the minutiae of the famous document throughout the course of the night.
While those fortunate enough to see Schreck perform the piece will surely have a different perspective, even in different hands What the Constitution Means to Me packs a wallop. Everything about it feels fresh, timely, and meticulously crafted, and despite the intense subject matter and hovering dark shadow of the current political climate, it manages to end on an uplifting note. The presence of the high school debater is meant to underscore the fact that our country’s future is very much in the hands of our younger generations, extremely capable generations who will hopefully reshape the Constitution to better protect marginalized groups. All in all, this production is a triumph and should be required viewing in this election year.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through February 28th. The running time is 100 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $59 and can be purchased here. Download the TodayTix app to enter for a chance to win $15 lottery tickets. After LA, this production will play Chicago from March 4th-April 12th, with additional cities to be announced soon. For more information about future engagements, click here.