Review by Paul Lockwood
When a play’s titled What the Constitution Means to Me, many prospective audience members may think they’re going to painfully relive a U.S. History class. Fear not. This Broadway in Chicago touring production, a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and for Best Play and Best Actress Tony Awards, is a pleasant surprise: it combines humor, passionate debate, emotion-filled memories, and yes, parts of the U.S. Constitution, into an impressive night of theater for adults. Heck, you even get a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution to take home, complete with Amendments 1 through 27.
Playwright Heidi Schreck’s script tells how Heidi, at age 15, traveled with her mother across the country, competing in American Legion-sponsored Constitutional debate competitions, making enough money to cover her entire college education. Actress Maria Dizzia, the adult playing Heidi at both 15 and in the present, realizes that sounds impressive and garners laughs when she shares the caveats, “30 years ago. It was a state school.” Even the American Legion Hall set we see on the stage (U.S. flag, American Legion flag, lectern, chairs, 100+ framed photos of American Legion officers) is reconstructed from a dream Heidi had about her speech-giving “scheme”, although she sheepishly admits, “I forgot a door.”
Original Broadway cast member Mike Iveson soon jogs in to join Dizzia on stage.
He’s playing an American Legion officer running the debate contest in a reenactment of the kind of competition Heidi would have been in decades ago.
In this part of the play, we’ve been informed that we won’t get to see the specific award-winning speech Heidi gave because her mother accidentally threw it away years ago. But what we do see is a glimpse of what Heidi was like at 15 (“active fantasy life… obsessed with violence, theater, and Patrick Swayze”), along with comments the adult Heidi can now make after years of looking back at: her own life-changing decisions; painful experiences endured by previous generations of her family; and the personal impact on her life of the Supreme Court and Congressional actions.
Heidi shares strong opinions and facts on subjects like birth control, abortion, and “epidemic levels of gender-based violence” in the U.S.
In later segments of what Dizzia reassures us is a “quite carefully constructed” play, Dizzia and Iveson talk about their own experiences (e.g., Iveson removing his American Legion costume and speaking candidly about being a gay actor), and real-life Los Angeles high school freshman Jocelyn Shek – a debater since 5th grade – joins them on stage to participate in a formal, fast-paced debate against Dizzia on a Constitution-related topic.
The audience is encouraged to audibly react to statements they like or hate. An audience member then gets to decide which of the two speakers – Dizzia or Shek (New York’s Rosdely Ciprian instead of Shek in some performances) – won the debate.
The final segment of the show allows Dizzia and her debate opponent to learn a bit about each other, sitting back to back center stage asking each other a few questions submitted by audience members at a previous performance. With the rest of the stage and theater darkened, this softly-illuminated moment provided a sweet epilogue for the play.
While this play might get lost in the shuffle at one of the larger downtown Chicago theaters, it’s perfectly suited to the smaller Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. When Dizzia, as herself or as Heidi, gets passionate or emotional about the Constitution, or when the audience is encouraged to respond during the debate, it’s an intimate environment and experience.
Director Oliver Butler has taken Schreck’s script and a small, but mighty, cast and developed a strong Constitution for a teenage or older audience. In my opinion, this Constitution doesn’t need any amendments.
• Paul Lockwood is an enthusiastic singer, frequent local theater actor, Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, occasional theater reviewer, and past president of TownSquare Players. Recent shows include Morning’s at Seven, 42nd Street, Once Upon a Mattress, and On Golden Pond.