At the very start of What the Constitution Means to Me, author Heidi Schreck (charmingly played here by Maria Dizzia) emphasizes that contrary to the assertions of her debate competitor, the Constitution is not a patchwork quilt. Neither is the play: instead, it’s a tightly woven narrative masquerading as a casual patchwork of personal reminiscences, civics lessons, and feminist observations.
In this it resembles Anton Chekhov’s comic monologue “Smoking is Bad for You,” which purports to be a lecture on the title topic but is in fact the tale of the speaker’s unhappy marriage, frustrated ambitions, and bullying wife. This is relevant because there’s a mention in Constitution of some critics who seem to believe that Schreck’s play isn’t constructed at all, but random, like found poetry or readings from an old diary. That in turn feels like an allusion to the long-held belief that what women do (including quilting!) couldn’t possibly be thoughtful or intentional. But when Schreck takes the arrangement of her work from the master of playwriting structure, it’s beyond dispute that she knows exactly what she’s doing, and why.
So I don’t just love Constitution because it activates my long-dormant lawyer self, nor because it strokes my prejudices, though it certainly does both of those. I love it because it showcases the skill of revealing everything while seeming to talk about nothing in particular. The show, a whole world contained in a drop of water, is ostensibly a recreation of the author’s experiences as a 15-year-old earning college tuition by participating in American Legion speech tournaments on the title topic.
Along the way, we learn about Heidi’s mother and grandmother and great-great-grandmother, about the 19th-century American west practice of purchasing brides from Europe, about domestic violence and sexual abuse and rape, and about Amendments Nine and Fourteen. And at the end, the still-energetic Dizzia engages in a debate with a 15-year-old competitive debater (the earnest Jocelyn Shek at the performance I saw, alternating with Rosdely Ciprian) about whether it’s worth trying to save the document at all. It is the platonic ideal performance for this administration, this year, this week, in which the last serious woman presidential candidate had to drop out because none of the misogyny described here has disappeared.
The two women are ably complemented by Mike Iveson, playing the chief of the American Legion Post and, for much of the show, seated silently on the stage as a representative of all men, and all male power, in the world. It’s a tribute to the actor’s likability (that word!) that he manages to do this without making every woman in the audience want to kill him.
Constitution (presented in a touring production with Broadway in Chicago, directed by Oliver Butler) is funny as well as sobering, and includes the best-handled audience participation segment ever. The finest moment came when, asked about her vision for herself in 30 years, Jocelyn said, “I’ll be president,” and a man shouted from the audience, “I hope not the first one!” though he might have meant woman, Asian, or both. You could feel the whole audience smile.
Somehow, the COVID-19 epidemic seems much too spot-on a metaphor for where we are as a society right now. Avoid other people, fear them, make sure you don’t touch them; isolate yourself. That’s been the message coming from the White House for three years and 53 days (but who’s counting?). Going to see What the Constitution Means to Me—in fact, going to any theater, or concert, or art exhibit, or postcard party, or rally, or polling place—is the best answer to that atomizing message. That’s what the Constitution means to me. v