What the Constitution Means to Me
At the Broadway Playhouse by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “What the Constitution Means to Me” at the Broadway Playhouse sounds like the title of a term paper assignment for a high school civics class. The play does give off a whiff of academia at times but the 100-minute show is basically a terrific blend of thought- provoking drama and the brilliant performance by by Maria Dizzia as the playwright in what is essentially a one-woman show.
“Constitution” was a surprise hit on Broadway in 2019, earning unanimous praise for Heidi Shreck as both the playwright and star. Shreck has not traveled with the show in the major role but it’s impossible to imagine a more persuasive and versatile performance than the acting masterpiece presented by Maria Dizzia.
Shreck’s play is a combination of autobiography, historical survey, and fierce feminism. Dizzia starts out playing the author as a 15-year old student debater who enters contests sponsored by the American Legion to earn scholarship money for college. The show shifts dramatic gears periodically, alternating from memoir to the examination of the Constitution to feminist pleas for women’s rights. Sheck points out that the Constitution has provided civil rights protections for more than two centuries, but not for women until comparatively recently. And this constitutional neglect makes her angry and sad.
Shreck takes the audience through the intimacies of the playwright’s life, including an abortion at the age of 21. She recounts how generations of women in her family were brutalized by their men, forced into lives blighted by domestic violence and sexual abuse without any relief from an indifferent male society who sees the law as for men only. Much of the play is an investigation of the 14th amendment to the Constitution, which for many years guaranteed granted equal rights to all Americans, as long as they were white males. This part of the show is the real learning experience for audiences, casting a shadow over the revered Constitution for the failure of the Founding Fathers to include women as co-beneficiaries of the rights guaranteed to men.
Dizzia is on stage the entire evening, but she gets complementary assistance from Mike Iveson, who first appears as the stuffy and officious supervisor of the American Legion debates, and later sheds that character’s personality to take a more personal role. The play concludes with a mini debate between the Shreck character and a teenage debater (played at my performance by Rosdely Ciprian, alternating with Jocelyn Shek) who takes the position that the Constitution as it now stands has lost its relevance. The teenager insists that the document requires radical if not total revision to connect with the realities of present day American society. Shreck agrees that the Constitution needs updating but she insists that the basic document remains a valid and essential safeguard for our basic rights.
At my performance, the audience, obviously of a strongly liberal bent, enthusiastically applauded the playwrights suggested changes in the Constitution that would be more inclusive of women, minorities, and immigrants. The turbulent state of American political discourse today lends the play a resonance that likely would have been more muted before the 2016 presidential election. The political climate today clearly is ripe for an articulate and stimulating discussion of the Constitutional strengths and weaknesses and that is what Shreck provides. The audience can ponder the text of the Constitution at their leisure by examining the document in booklets passed out free to viewers during each performance.
Spectators may have their own opinions about social and legal positions the playwright takes, but there can be no argument about Dizzia’s performance. In the first part of the play she conveys the energy and commitment of a bright female from her teens through her early 20’s. The portrayal is so engaging and authentic that I was surprised to learn that Dizzia is really in her 40’s. Dizzia beautifully swings the emotional pendulum in Shreck’s later years with recollections of the domestic horrors endured by four generations of women in her family. For centuries, the Constitution, for all its merits, abandoned many women to lives of suffering with no possibility of legal relief from a Constitution that was conceived by white males to serve their own interests. Shreck’s great grandmother, grandmother, and mother all endured hard lives because the country’s most powerful and influential document wouldn’t take their side.
The production benefits from sensitive and sure-footed directing by Oliver Butler. The single set designed by Rachel Hauck consists primarily of a podium and a back wall of portraits showing dozens of historical figures, presumably all members of the Supreme Court. The atmospheric lighting was designed by Jen Schriever, the sound by Sinan Refik Zafar, and the costumes by Michael Krass.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” is full of admiration and appreciation for the original document as augmented in later decades by 27 amendments to add freedoms and liberties not specifically designated by the Founding Fathers. Shreck’s play gives the audience a lot to think about, her serious discourses leavened by much humor. It’s an absorbing evening for adult playgoers and would be a terrific field trip for high school students as a superb history lesson that is accessible, informative, and entertaining.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” gets a rating of.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” runs through April 12 at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 East Chestnut Street. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Wednesday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $105. Call (800) 775-2000 or visit www.BroadwayIn Chicago.com.