Words on parchment carry emotional weight in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’

Tour star Maria Dizzia, performing a very personal piece by playwright Heidi Schreck, offers wisdom and hope for ourselves and our posterity

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Maria Dizzia stars in the national touring production of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” | Joan Marcus

Maria Dizzia stars in the national touring production of “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

What, exactly, does the U.S. Constitution mean to you?

A first response may be definitional — it is our founding legal document, expressing the set of principles by which our nation is governed. Another may be a quick qualitative assessment, that it represents a truly great enumeration of rights, since we (as in, those growing up in America) were all taught about its inviolate greatness.

But that doesn’t express what it means to you personally.

‘What the Constitution Means to Me’


When: Through April 12

Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.

Tickets: $30-$105

Info: broadwayinchicago.com

Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

Playwright Heidi Schreck has been contemplating that question since she was 15, when she stockpiled college scholarship money by competing in American Legion speech competitions on the subject of the Constitution. And she has turned her take on our nation’s legal framework into a modest but cleverly structured, often funny, powerfully provocative, even emotional play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” that became, shockingly, a Broadway hit and a national tour, now playing at the Broadway Playhouse.

At first reconstituting her teenage perspective on the Constitution — retrospectively informed, humorously, by her younger self’s obsession with Patrick Swayze in “Dirty Dancing” — Schreck’s play gradually introduces us to her mature views, with emphasis on her belief that from its inception the Constitution has been used to suppress the rights of many, and that to her it largely represents the means by which fully empowered men subjugate women to their too-often violent will. 

It’s a fiercely progressive but well-argued point of view, supported by a recounting not just of a Supreme Court case or two (see, in particular Castle Rock v. Gonzalez, which undermined the enforcement of restraining orders), but also by her family history of domestic violence and her own early-age pregnancy.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” becomes a journey — both intellectual and emotional — from idealism to disenchantment to a type of aspirational realism, embodied by a debate, with a real-world teenage debater no less (a preternaturally composed Jocelyn Shek on press night, Rosdely Ciprian on others), on whether the Constitution should be kept or abolished. To represent a few problems with our democracy, the winner is judged by a single member of the audience.

As a play, the work is a fascinating hybrid form. It starts as a memory piece, with an amusing introduction to the set by Rachel Hauck, a wood-paneled room at an American Legion office, with many dozens of member portraits on the wall, all white men, of course. The work also seemingly belongs to the genre of one-person shows, but it isn’t one. In addition to Shek’s debater, actor Mike Iveson ably plays the competition’s Legionnaire host, who introduces the teenage Heidi and keeps her to set timeframes. Iveson then sheds that persona and plays … himself, a friend of the playwright emanating gentle warmheartedness, of a male variety, even as Schreck condemns male violence and the legal system that infuriatingly fails to prevent it. Iveson delivers a monologue, which to me came off as the one cliché moment in an evening that was anything but.

Schreck toys with the artifice of theater itself — “I somehow forgot a door,” she says about the set. When her memory of the competition ends, she sheds her structured blazer and informs us she will now only be herself, 30 years older.

This touring production, directed with understated fluidity by Oliver Butler, possesses an extra layer of artifice: although Schreck played the role on Broadway, here she is portrayed by actress Maria Dizzia. Dizzia captures quite perfectly the right tone, one that can be humorous, disarming, angry, brainy and poignant, sometimes simultaneously. The show does make me wish I’d seen it with Schreck herself — particularly for moments when anecdotes cause brief, teary pauses, which must come across differently when the memories are the performer’s own — but none of that takes away from Dizzia’s captivating presence.

Few pieces can deal with complex legal concepts — penumbral rights! — in a manner completely accessible but not reductive, an amazing accomplishment in and of itself. And the timeliness of this piece can’t be divorced from its success. Without any direct mention of you-know-who, the work’s very existence belongs to the moment and takes on an added urgency in a week where arguably the most qualified woman dropped out of the presidential race.

Schreck ends by looking into the future. With the introduction of a contemporary teen debater, she leaves us with enormous hope, for the future of women, of our democracy, and even, yes, for our so-very-imperfect constitution.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.

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