What the Constitution Means to Me

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Mark Bretz – Ladue News, April 19, 2023

Max & Louie’s ‘Constitution’ Is Lively, Pensive Look at American History and Politics

Highlights: Max & Louie Productions shows precisely what theater can be, when it is in its best and most challenging form, in the regional premiere of this Tony Award-nominated play about the past, present and future of the United States from playwright Heidi Schreck’s thoughtful and probing narrative.

Story: A woman appears before the audience on a stage which appears to be lopsided, tilting slightly but noticeably in one direction. Behind and on either side are three walls with photos of approximately 150 white men, and at stage right is an American flag, all in a room which appears to be an American Legion hall.

She identifies herself as Heidi Schreck and tells us how she paid for her college tuition by traveling around the country beginning at age 15 in 1989, debating the merits and demerits of the United States Constitution for prize money. She informs us that she will be alternating back and forth between her present, adult self and her teenage version during the course of the one-act, 100-minute play.

Her primary points of focus for her debate are the 9th and 14th amendments, the former of which was referred to by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas as a “penumbra.” In U.S. Constitutional law, “penumbra” includes a group of rights derived, by implication, from other rights explicitly protected in the Bill of Rights. As for the 14th amendment, it is one of the “Reconstruction Amendments” passed in 1868, part of which dealt with the rights of formerly enslaved men but still excluding women and indigenous Americans.

As Schreck discourses on the Constitution, she weaves into her narrative both personal and historical aspects which glaringly and shockingly emphasize the inequities of the American Constitution through the centuries. She talks about how her great-great-grandmother was sent from Germany to Washington state after being purchased by her great-great-grandfather from a catalogue. That woman later died at age 36 after being sent to a mental hospital with “melancholia.”

Schreck also discusses the abuse endured by both her mother and grandmother while pointing out how themes of sexual assault, domestic abuse and immigration, especially for women, have led to significant legal cases in American history. The 14th amendment, e.g., has been cited in such landmark cases as Brown vs. the Board of Education (racial segregation), Roe vs. Wade (abortion), Obergefell vs. Hodges (same-sex marriage) and other examples of citizenship rights.

She observes that there are “two kinds of rights, positive and negative,” and that the Constitution primarily is written from the latter perspective. She knows her subject very well, and has much to say to anyone who is interested in hearing more about a decidedly different view of American history from an individual perspective.

Other info: The mission statement of Max & Louie, printed in the play’s program, is to “enhance lives through the arts by presenting bold, St. Louis premiere plays and musicals that entertain and challenge, bringing artists and audiences together in a shared experience that illuminates life through joy, wonder, laughter and tears.”

Consider that mission robustly accomplished in this sparkling, provocative treatise. It’s a lively, frenetic and ruminative adventure under Nancy Bell’s keen, disciplined direction and Michelle Hand’s explosive, pinball performance on that askew stage so cleverly crafted by set designer Dunsi Dai.

In her program notes, director Bell says that “it’s our job to do what we can to set the record straight about what has come before. I believe that’s why Heidi Schreck wrote this play, and it is certainly why our team is producing it.”

Lighting designer Zak Metalsky carefully supports the scenes on stage with illumination addressing specific moments. Actual recordings of Supreme Court hearings are provided in Phillip Evans’ sound design, which adds an element of authenticity in those sometimes awkward, always staid conversations as the judges debate history. Evans also sets the stage for the show to come with a selection of Tracy Chapman songs.

Hand moves gracefully and convincingly from teen Heidi to her adult version, yet both have an incisive intellect which dissects a prized American document at its core from an individual perspective as well as a long-range view of how the Constitution was written by, and designed to serve and protect, white men. Schreck lays bare her own personal experiences to exemplify how she herself has been impacted by laws, a perspective poignantly presented by Hand in her wide-ranging portrayal.

Bell also integrates Isaiah Di Lorenzo into the story, first as a Legionnaire veteran who serves as a judge for the many debates entered by Schreck, standing straight and erect in his crisp uniform overseen by wardrobe head Abby Pastorello. Later, Di Lorenzo reflects on a white man’s observations of the United States, illuminating and telling in his sobering description.

Near the end of the performance, our host announces that there will be a brief debate between her and a current high-school student, played alternately by Riley Carter Adams, Aislyn Morrow and Maahi Saini. Adams participated on opening night, as she and Hand took opposing views on whether the Constitution should be preserved or abolished. A woman was chosen at random from the audience to serve as its collective judge after the debaters had made their points.

She decided on that evening to abolish the Constitution, based (hopefully) on her interpretations of what she had heard through the course of the evening. That decision could vary each night. At the least, it shows that the Constitution can be a living, breathing document three centuries after it was written. That is vibrant history.

And the best part of all? Everyone attending a performance of “What the Constitution Means to Me” receives a booklet titled “The Constitution of the United States” – a treasure to take home and read anew.