Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” is that rare theatrical event that has the familiar and the unexpected suddenly colliding in such a gloriously cathartic way that you don’t really know how to respond in the aftermath. Part solo performance, part historical re-creation, part live parliamentary debate with audience participation, “Constitution” is a hopeful object afloat in a society drowning in a mass of virus pandemics and presidential primary hysteria. It’s a play that reaches out and says, “Yes, we are all hopelessly, terribly afraid together. But there is a way out. There must be.”
Originally performed by Schreck herself, for this touring production she has passed the reins to fellow New York actor Maria Dizzia, a commanding presence whose truth, humor and passion are as bright as the yellow blazer she dons for most of the show. (The effectively minimal costumes are designed by Michael Krass.) Dizzia embodies Schreck to tell the true story of fifteen-year-old Heidi’s participation in Constitutional debate contests. She traveled around the country, earning money for college by defending and debating the Constitution and finding parallels within this document to her own life.
It’s that part that gets to her, though, as she works through defending a document—and an institution—that, historically, has been the most favorable to straight, white, cisgendered, abled-bodied men. Schreck’s narrative frame becomes the story of inherited trauma that has been passed down through the women in her family, a history of abusive husbands and the systems that empowered them, and how an overtly Negative Rights interpretation of the constitution has led to a country where women feel split in two: one half a cauldron filled with centuries’ worth of rage ready to bestow justice, the other half covertly trying to appease a dominating class that can and will murder them.
Schreck’s endeavor is a powerhouse hidden within a deceptively modest framework: a unit set (a marvelous mirror of male privilege staring into our souls, designed by Rachel Hauck) with no secrets to it but its gentle simplicity, housing an emotionally wrought solo piece that’s secretly a three-person show. Mike Iveson embodies a hilarious and heartwarming force of Positive Male Energy with the comedic chops of an “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” character. Dizzia ends the show with a constitutional debate against a teenage competitor, played on alternating performances by Rosdely Ciprian and Jocelyn Shek (Shek was our opening-night debate master and gave a hell of an argument).
The show ends with the actors asking the audience (well, a sole audience member chosen as our representative) to choose whether to keep or abolish our constitution. It’s a question many of us reckon with on a daily basis in our lives: should we work to reform and fix the institutions that are failing our marginalized communities or destroy these institutions altogether in the hopes of rebuilding something greater and more equitable for a just society?
Schreck doesn’t have an answer but she does have a play that embodies what theater should always set out to do: start a conversation and engage a contemporary audience. Alongside director Oliver Butler, she has crafted a piece that is not only deeply personal, but also cognizant of indigenous rights, the deepening of our culture’s understanding of gender and the insidious patriarchal power structures that dominate our lives. “Constitution” is nothing short of a revolutionary play, but the true measure of its success will be how we carry the baton and keep the conversation going. (Ben Kaye)
Broadway in Chicago at Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 East Chestnut, (800)775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com, $25-$105. Through April 12.