What the Constitution Means to Me
By Gerry Kowarsky – HEC Media, April 11, 2023
Max & Louie Productions is presenting an excellent staging of Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, a compelling play based on her life.
At 15, Schreck entered speaking contests about the Constitution at American Legion halls across the United States. She won enough prize money to pay for her college education.
A few years ago, Schreck tells the audience, she was thinking about the Constitution and began wondering what she loved so much about it in her youth. Her mother had discarded her original speech, so she decided to resurrect it from her memories.
One of her recollections is that her fiercest competitor was especially good at connecting personally with the Constitution. Schreck was too emotionally guarded at 15 to talk about her own life.
The play’s setting is the American Legion hall in Schreck’s hometown, Wenatchee, Washington. As the script dictates, Dunsi Dai’s scenic design is not naturalistic. The walls and the floor are not at right angles, giving the space an off-kilter look. Four rows of photographs line the walls. The legionnaires in the pictures are a homogeneous group.
At first, Schreck effectively channels her younger self as she reconstructs her speech. Her older self begins to emerge, however, when she includes a personal note about her great-great-grandmother. She came to America after being ordered from a catalog by Scheck’s great great-grandfather. She was diagnosed with melancholia and died in a mental institution at age 36.
Before long, the adult Schreck finds the contest’s time constraints too limiting. She steps out of the contest to speak personally and passionately about how the Constitution has failed women, immigrants, and everyone else outside the group of white cisgender male property owners who wrote the Constitution.
Under Nancy Bell’s assured direction, Michelle Hand turns in a riveting portrayal of Schreck’s emotional journey as reenacting the contest leads her to a new understanding of the Constitution. The vividness and persuasiveness of Hand’s performance are extraordinary. Isaiah Di Lorenzo performs at the same level, first as the legionnaire in charge of the contest and later in the highly personal monologue by Schreck’s friend who has joined her onstage to play the legionnaire.
About two thirds of the way through the script, Hand introduces herself to audience and announces she will do the rest of the play as herself. A teenager joins Hand onstage for a parliamentary debate. Together, they dig deeply into “a big question about our founding document. Is it protecting us, or is it the source of our problems?” On opening night, Riley Carter Adams expertly played the Debater. Adams shares the role with Aislyn Morrow and Maahi Saini.
The question at issue is, “Should We Abolish the United States Constitution?” The audience is encouraged to “make some noise” when it agrees or disagrees strongly with a debater because “in parliamentary debate, audience participation plays a huge role in determining the outcome.”
Adams argued for abolishing the Constitution; Hand argued for keeping it. On another night, their roles could be reversed. The script includes two versions of the debate and says they should be used on alternate nights.
Despite the scripting, Hand and Adams made the debate sound totally spontaneous. The opening night audience was very responsive and clearly favored one side.
Per the script, an audience member is always selected to determine the debate’s winner. Its outcome is less important, however, than the fact that the audience must think about the arguments on both sides.