The title is personal, the play is personal, and so is this review. “What the Constitution Means to Me,” is the autobiographical story of author Heidi Schreck. It is particularly timely with the senate impeachment trial filling the airways, competing with Harvey Weinstein’s trial for media coverage. What are constitutional rights? What are the limits? And how has the constitution been massaged through the years to accommodate changes in mores?
As a 15 year-old Heidi Schreck participated in an annual speech competition called “What the Constitution Means to Me” held by the local Wenatchee Washington, American Legion. She won that local competition. Her parents subsequently helped her tour the country to repeated victories; her winnings financed her college education.
Here is where I get personal. In high school my sons were avid speech and debate participants. Our dinner table was a battleground of avidly held opinion. My younger son, Bret, entered and won the same Los Angeles region, American Legion competition several years before Ms. Schreck. There is nothing more passionate than the deeply held feelings of a 14 or 15 year-old. Schreck came from a very liberal family as did our sons. Speaking before an American Legion audience was a double challenge for both of them.
Back to the main event. In New York, the lead was played by Heidi Schreck herself. She had been thinking about her 15-year-old experience and asked her mother for a copy of that speech; of course, mothers are supposed to have saved everything. Forty years later and her mom had thrown it away. True confession, I don’t know where my son’s speech is either. I do not know if it ever existed, he rarely wrote anything down. The first half of the play, she recreates that high school self with digs from a mature point of view. She is an adult looking back. Maria Dizzia plays the part with humor, comfort, and charm. In the original New York production Schreck played herself adding extra power to the observations. The interjections still breathe fresh life into the experience. Part of the Legion’s challenge was for the students to lace their story with ways in which the constitution was personally significant. Her family’s story is fraught with generations of spousal and child abuse. Her parents broke the chain. That personal, dramatic history made her tale all the more poignant.
Sitting in front of me in the theater was a class of 14 or 15 year olds. They, like the rest of the audience, listened to the first half with rapt attention. I only heard one comment from the youngsters, “I knew it was the ninth amendment!” That is paying attention.
Attention, theirs and mine, wandered when Heidi turned back into her adult self to deliver an interesting, but somewhat disconnected lecture on the fate of women under the constitution, how women were ignored by the constitution and how due to its flexibility, rights have been extended…reluctantly. Still laced with humor, it gradually becomes more of a lecture than a play.
I also particularly take issue with her unquestioning endorsement of “woke” culture. Yes, issues of equality are at the front of much of this generation, but “woke” has come to mean you must say it, think it, my way, do it my way, stifling discussion, and, yes, free speech. It easily slips into the culture of cancelation where nuance is lost and debate is stifled. Adolescent passion is inspiring, but not when it stifles differences of opinion. It has the potential of creating its own brand of tyranny. Wasn’t “What the Constitution Means to Me” initially an exercise in speech and debate?
Once again the action came to life when Rosdely Ciprian, a high school sophomore who, in real life, excels in debate came on the stage. She is a dazzling young woman. In alternate performances Jocelyn Shek, another high school debater fills this role. The student and Maria Dizzia then stage a, purportedly unrehearsed, parliamentary debate. Should the Constitution be retained or should it be abandoned? Gotta say, Rosdely won the debate hands down with the opinion that, flawed as it may be, the constitution should be retained.
Part of my distaste for the lecture portion of the second second half undoubtedly comes from personal experience. Schreck clearly has retained her passion for issues as has my son. Her vehicle is theater, he was a professor whose position was distorted by a mob of “woke” students, whom he did not know, who distorted his words in an email that went viral. The students would not enter into a discussion with him. The YouTube video taken by the students themselves is a vivid illustration of “woke’ run amok. It illustrates the ugliness of guilt by accusation. Debate clearly honed my sons’ persuasive abilities as it clearly has had a lifelong effect upon Schreck’s. She created a play that was a Pulitzer runner up and Bret has gone on to a successful career apart from academia.
I told you at the start this would be personal. Despite my criticisms, I would highly recommend seeing “What the Constitution Means to Me.” It is not perfect, but it is timely, well performed, thought provoking, and informative. If you happen to have an adolescent drag the kid along too. I can almost insure you will have fodder for a real conversation on the way home. And notice how I have avoided the use of personal pronouns in this paragraph. For better or worse, we all are affected by the pressure of the mob.