Is the U.S. Constitution the hallmark achievement of the United States and fundamental to our system of government – or a dated piece of paper which sorely needs to be trashed and replaced by a modern document encompassing all the societal and philosophical changes which have occurred since 1776? This is the basic question which playwright Heidi Schreck addresses as she examines the fine and not-so-fine points of controversy in the Constitution. At this moment in our history, the topic could not be more timely, appropriate, and meaningful. Soon after its premiere on Broadway on March 31, 2019, Schreck’s memoir play received considerable positive attention in the form of a Tony nomination for Best Play – as well as becoming a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Clearly, the play resonates with many.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME is actually Heidi Schreck’s life story spanning her teen years up to the present. When she was 15 years old, Schreck earned money for college by engaging in debate competitions across the U.S. and was apparently quite a successful debater. Her primary topic concerned the U.S. Constitution, which led to a lifelong examination of this historical document and its ability to address modern issues and changes in beliefs.
In a clever and often humorous study of her response to the Constitution, Schreck (Maria Dizzia) brings her 15-year-old self back to the debating stage as she describes important elements in the Constitution and Amendments (pretty easy) and how they have personally affected her (really hard). As she points out obvious inconsistencies with current thought – papers written to protect white men and typically ignoring other diverse populations, including females of any shade – she maintains charming innocence at 15 – and fiery resentment as she matures to adulthood. The stage is shared with Mike Iveson, who appeared in the original Broadway cast and alternates between debate moderator and a real live person when Schreck enters the present.
Soon there are lots of issues up for debate – including domestic violence, women’s rights, immigration, and all those other pivotal questions which plague American society at this time. Integrated into the factual data and words written long before any of us were born, Schreck weaves her own life challenges, including abortion and generational spousal abuse in her family (with both the victims and the legal system turning a blind eye). When Schreck returns to her present adult self, she ties her concerns up by announcing an on-stage debate between herself and a 15-year-old adversary, Rosdely Ciprian, who will alternate with local debater Jocelyn Shek. Each evening, the audience will get to choose the winner as the two debaters address Schreck’s first and fundamental question: the validity of the Constitution in today’s world.
Directed with a firm hand by Oliver Butler, who manages to tell Schreck’s story through her memories and then in real time, WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME is highly effective and involving. The audience is even given a handy ACLU copy of the U.S. Constitution in order to reflect later on points brought up in this thought-provoking play. The tricky transition from play to real life is seamless and intriguing. Rachel Hauck’s scenic design sets the stage for what’s to come, and the entire production team does a good job of highlighting the tale. Overall, this is a fascinating look at American history through the eyes of a teen girl who grows up to question the sacrosanct with wit and wisdom.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME runs through February 28, 2020, with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays (no performances on Tuesday 2/11 and Wednesday 2/12 and added student matinee performances on Thursday 2/27 and Friday 2/28). The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets range from $25 to $125. For information and reservations, call 213-628-2772 or go online.