Spring Arts Preview “What The Constitution Means To Me”

by Lynn Venhaus, Webster Kirkwood Times, Mar 13, 2023

Two local notables in the theater community are joining forces in the St. Louis premiere of “What The Constitution Means To Me,” which imagines how it will shape the next generation of Americans.

Michelle Hand of Webster Groves, a veteran of more than 40 shows in professional theater in the region, takes the lead role as playwright Heidi Schreck. Riley Carter Adams, a seventh grader at John Burroughs School, plays a debater.

The 2017 play opened on Broadway in 2019, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominee for Best Play.

Schreck’s timely memoir opens Max & Louie Productions theatrical season and will be presented April 5-23 at The Marcelle Theatre in St. Louis’ Grand Arts Center District.

“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to recover from the fatigue and grief that we have all experienced, Max & Louie Productions presents the opportunity to feel uplifted, to galvanize and to explore just what the Constitution means to you,” Producing Director Estelle “Stellie” Siteman said.

Fifteen-year-old Schreck earned prize money for her college tuition by winning Constitutional debate competitions across the United States. The play is inspired by the prompt she received on these tours: “Draw a personal connection between your life and the Constitution.”

During the play, Schreck addresses women’s rights, immigration, domestic abuse and the history of the U.S., along with other topics.

Hand plays Schreck’s teenage and present self to trace the relationship between four generations of women in her family and the founding document that shaped their lives, digging into its aspirations and contradictions — and failures.

Hand and Adams are familiar with each other, as they have worked together before. They played mother and child in the 2021 production of “A Christmas Carol” at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

“I’m super excited to be working with my stage mom Michelle once again. This is going to be so fun,” Riley said, noting that debate is one of her favorite school activities as well.

Growing up in St. Louis, Hand was a middle school debater in the Bellarmine Speech League. Recent stage appearances include Mrs. Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol” at The Rep, and her St. Louis Theater Circle-nominated performances as Sugar in “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Max and Louie Productions and Mrs. Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice” at The Rep.

She won in 2019 for “Into the Breeches!” presented by the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, and has a Kevin Kline Award for “Separate Tables” from Act Inc. in 2006.

Hand said she became an actress later than most who are drawn to show business. She was working on a doctorate in literature at Washington University when she became part of a local production, and it blossomed from there.

“I think sometimes, it finds you,” she said about careers.

When Riley was 7 years old, she created her first YouTube channel, “Black and Girly with Miss Riley.” She has performed at COCA, Gateway Center for Performing Arts, Kirkwood Youth Theatre, Ignite Theatre Company, Union Avenue Opera, The Black Rep, The Rep and The Muny.

Last summer, she was featured in “Camelot” and as part of the ensemble in “The Color Purple” at The Muny. She starred as Matilda in COCA’s summer mainstage production, and as Paris in the New Jewish Theatre’s “The Bee Play,” for which she received a St. Louis Theater Circle nomination this year.

“I am at my strongest and most confident when I’m acting,” Riley said.

Both actresses said “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a special play.

“Heidi Schreck is an amazing storyteller. I love that it makes you more aware of the issues. We’ve added more meaning,” Hand said. “I love the idea of revising a young version of you and what you believed. And argue with conviction and try to understand the promise of the founding fathers.”

A live debate is featured at the end of the show.

“People with different ideas have to listen to each other, and maybe minds will change and perceptions will be different,” Hand said.

Shreck used her family to frame the story. Her mother and grandmother Bette were abused by Bette’s husband. She also mentions that her great-great-grandmother was a mail order bride from Germany to Washington state, and she died at age 36 after being admitted to a mental hospital for melancholia.

“It’s primarily a women’s story. It’s about people who came before us. We share a personal connection to our grandmother, mother and others, and why was it different for them in politics? There is power in community. We need to come back together,” Hand said. “We have to learn to watch the sense of who they were. It’s so incredible that they sensed knowing that they belonged in the world.

“We are at the time that politics is personal,” she added, noting the play is a rallying cry for women. “We’re important. We matter. Believe it.”

Riley said discussed changes that her generation might help bring about.

“Will we lead a movement about climate change? Will we be able to fix it? Do we have much hope for the future? Even something so small? One person can make things happen,” she said.