Theater Review: WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME (National Tour)

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by Dan Zeff on October 28, 2021

in Theater-Chicago


What the Constitution Means to Me is back at the Broadway Playhouse after a two year pandemic hiatus. Again, it is delivering an entertaining, thoughtful, humorous, insightful, and sometimes disturbing examination of the United States Constitution, its glories and what playwright Heidi Schreck sees as the document’s shortcomings.

Constitution is basically a one-woman show, with Cassie Beck taking the role of the narrating playwright who entertains and stirs the audience with her mix of civics lesson, American history, and standup comedy. It’s a remarkable performance with the actress on stage almost the entire 105 intermissionless minutes. Beck is bewitching both as the teenage Heidi and as her current 40-something self. Her performance is animated, intimate, and disarming, shifting moods deftly and altogether supplying a splendid testimony to her acting skills and her stamina.

Cassie Beck.

The show is set on what starts out as an American Legion hall in Schreck’s home state of Washington. The 15-year old Heidi is competing in the regional semifinals in an American Legion oratory competition on the theme of what the Constitution means personally to a teenage girl in 1989. The play then morphs into the adult Heidi recreating the prizewinning speech she gave 30 years earlier, a speech that somehow was thrown out by her mother.

The playwright tells her story through the lives of Heidi’s great grandmother, grandmother, mother, and Heidi herself. And a troubled history it is, charting decades of American society (read white patriarchy) denying the country’s women the most basic rights and protection against domestic male abuse. The U.S. Constitution does not even include the word “woman” throughout its entire text, evidence of the low status of American females reduced to chattels to be treated as men wished, without domestic or legal restraint.

Cassie Beck (right) steps into the shoes of actor/writer Heidi Schreck (left) for the national tour

Heidi’s litany of abuses against American women is delivered more in sorrow than in anger. The play isn’t a feminist screed, just telling it like it is, portraying women struggling decade after decade for personal rights (including reproductive rights) denied by a hostile or uncaring society. Heidi’s even-handed delivery, minus any shrillness, makes her case all the more persuasive. The playwright disarms any critical ax-grinding and accusations of soapbox bias with her humor and warmth.

The play ends with a debate between Heidi and a teenage student, Emilyn Toffler, who gave as good as she got (Toffler alternates with Jocelyn Shek). Their debate touched on whether we should retain the Constitution as created in the late 18th century and later amended, or start over with a new Constitution that better reflects our changed world. Do we stick with the vision of the Founding Fathers, warts and all, or create a new version to meet the needs of the new millennium?

Jocelyn Shek

At the conclusion of the play, ushers pass through the audience distributing booklets containing the complete Constitution for perusal and reflection.

So what we have in What the Constitution Means to Me is a concise but thought provoking play — entertaining, literate, informative, often disturbing, and never dull. Cassie Beck’s performance is a marvel of balance that connects naturally with the audience, never turning abrasive or argumentative. Thanks also to director Oliver Butler for guiding Beck away from any in-your-face partisanship and sustaining a continuous energy that doesn’t allow the script to descend into a wordy academic exercise. And praise also to scenic designer Rachel Hauck for creating that back wall of tell-tale historical portraits of American movers and shakers, every one a male. Heidi does conclude on an upbeat note, stating that “The only thing holding us together right now as a country is a collective faith in this document,” a statement that drew appreciative applause from the opening night audience. And so say we all.

Joselyn Shek & Cassie Beck 

photos by Joan Marcus

What the Constitution Means to Me
Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
presented by Broadway in Chicago
ends November 7, 2021 in Chicago

national tour continues; for more cities and dates, visit Constitution

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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