By Rikki Lee Travolta
Now playing through November 12th at the Copley Theatre as a part of Paramount Theatre’s BOLD Series, What the Constitution Means to Me is a thought-provoking play of the highest order.
It is a very non-traditional play. In part, it constitutes a detailed history lesson about the inequities of our country. At the same time, it is also part dramatic storytelling, reflecting the real-life experiences of playwright Heidi Schreck. And, it is also meant to make the audience think – inviting you to draw your own conclusions about the U.S. Constitution and contemporary judicial issues.
As a teenager, Heidi Schreck competed in Constitution debate contests in order to earn money to pay for her college education. The play transports the audience back to that time, with interjections from the present, to address such topics as women’s rights, immigration, and domestic abuse.
The play further delves into the failure of the Constitution to protect Indigenous people and other people of color. It also shines a light on the struggles of those whose gender identity or sexual orientation are outside the parameters of the old, white, outwardly heterosexual men who make the laws.
The main character of the play is Heidi Schreck herself. The playwright performed the role throughout the development of the show beginning in 2017. Her tenure in the play includes its successful 2019 Broadway run.
Demonstrating how powerful the play is, Schreck was, in fact, nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress for her Broadway run. The show as also nominated as Best Play in the Tony Awards, was selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and was named by Time Magazine as one of its 10 Best Theatre Performances of 2019.
For this production, celebrated Chicago actress Cory Goodrich takes on the persona of Heidi – embodying the playwright to tell her story to the audience. Over the course of 90 minutes, Goodrich’s Heidi describes how the Constitution has affected the women in her family, including herself. For the most part, it is an eye-opening lesson about how women have traditionally been totally unprotected by the founding fathers’ principled document.
We learn that the women in Schreck’s family history have been historically failed by the Constitution. This goes back decades, with Schreck citing how her great-great-grandmother was purchased out of a catalog and shipped to the U.S. from Germany. As a woman, she had no protections under the law, and died mysteriously while locked in a mental hospital at age 36.
In fact, while the concept of the Constitution is clearly a good one, the actual document has several glaring issues. For one, the document never once mentions the word “women.” The founding fathers wrote the document from the perspective of old white men. The word “sex” is also never mentioned in the Constitution.
Goodrich has a staggering amount of dialogue including many direct quotes of the Constitution and its amendments. She delivers the facts flawlessly, and offers an approachable, endearing central character as she transports between her 15-year-old self and her present-day appearance as a woman in her 40s.
The backdrop for the play is a stunning recreation of a 1980s American Legion Hall, just like the ones the playwright would visit throughout her teen years to drum up money for college. Kudos to scenic designer Angela Weber Miller.
Kevin McKillip plays the legionnaire charged with overseeing teen Heidi’s debate on the Constitution and its amendments. Later in the story, the character drops the legionnaire façade, takes off his tie, and talks about his experiences as a homosexual man. He cites how we live in a society where it is somehow acceptable for a gay man to be punched in the face while walking down the street, simply for being dressed flamboyantly. McKillip absolutely owns the role. His performance is extremely effective and extremely touching.
What the Constitution Means to Me is directed by the incredibly talented Lauren Berman. Berman is a delightfully skilled director with a clear understanding of how to stage a hit. The characters her actors portray are well developed and her staging makes great use of the intimate space.
Included in Berman’s resume is work with 4 Chairs Theatre, where she has mounted a number of shows that involve or relate to young people. These credits include Ride the Cyclone and Spring Awakenings – both focused on the teen experience. Berman makes great use of this background in regard to this play’s third character.
Played on an alternating basis by Vivian Webb and Lilly Fujioka, the Debater is an actual teenager who engages with the actress playing Heidi. They have a real live debate over whether the Constitution in its present state can be saved via additional amendments, or if it would be better to throw out the existing Constitution and write a new one.
Despite the fact that most informed Americans want the Constitution updated to protect women, people of color, and people of all sexual orientations, no new amendments have passed since 1992. The Equal Rights Amendment, for instance, has the overwhelming support of Americans, yet it has yet to be made law. The ERA was first proposed in 1923. Think about that. It’s been 100 years since the ERA was first introduced and it’s still not law.
Abortion is one of the subject areas that the Heidi Schreck script not only touches on, but explores intimately. We learn that Roe v. Wade doesn’t protect a woman’s right to choose what happens with her own body, but rather it protects a doctor’s right to privacy in deciding what is right for a woman’s body. That’s a hard truth to swallow. And now the Supreme Court is gutting what little protections there were.
Complimenting Miler’s set design are the talents of lighting designer Jessica Neill, sound designer Forrest Gregor, properties designer Aimee Plant, costume designer Caitlin McLeod, dramaturg Devon Hayakawa, casting director Trent Stork, stage manager Lina Benich, and assistant stage manager Rebecca J. Lister. Understudies are Andrea Uppling and Gabriel Fries.
What the Constitution Means to Me is meant to provoke thought. And that is exactly what director Berman and her small cast accomplish. What the Constitution Means to Me at Paramount’s Copley Theatre should be experienced – plain and simple. So, buy your tickets and get ready for an evening of thought, education, and world-class entertainment.
All BOLD Series productions are presented in Paramount’s Copley Theatre located at 8 East Galena Blvd in Aurora, directly across the street from the main Paramount Arts Centre. It is a beautiful intimate space, with all the bells and whistles one would expect of a Paramount entertainment venue.
Make plans to see the superb What the Constitution Means to Me, then set aside some time to process all you’ll be given to ponder. For ticket information visit www.paramountaurora.com or call the box office at (630) 896-6666.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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