Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
What the Constitution Means to Me
In 2019, after a series of tryouts elsewhere, Schreck performed her show on Broadway, playing her younger self and offering a good-natured dissertation on our nation's history and themes including women's and minority rights, immigration, and domestic violence. Despite a pandemic interruption, What the Constitution Means to Me was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Now it's a script available for theatrical production, and D. Lynn Meyers, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's artistic director, has been itching to stage it for several years. It's the opener for ETC's 2023-2024, staged by veteran local director Brian Robertson.
The show initially seems simple and straightforward: An actor, in this case local professional Connan Morrissey, portrays Schreck as an adult and as a 15-year-old debater. But it's a demanding role, as she's onstage for 100 minutes without an intermission in a performance that slips back and forth in time, while occasionally stepping forward to speak directly to the audience. She portrays the Constitution in plain-spoken, sometimes adolescent terms, making it relatively easy for audiences to understand. She invites them to imagine themselves as American Legion members–in other words, white guys smoking cigars.
Two other actors allow Morrissey to occassionally catch her breath. Phil Fiorini is a legionnaire who introduces the debate with awkward humor and tries to manage Heidi's timing, without much success, since she has a hard time containing her enthusiasm for what the Constitution is capable of, describing it as a "witch's cauldron," full of "magical and mysterious" elements, especially the amendments making up the Bill of Rights. Fiorini's role evolves into a character who is distinctly not a legionnaire and who becomes considerably more engrossed in Heidi's message.
The third character, simply called "Debater," is played by Sydni Charity Solomon, a senior acting major at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music. She comes on during the latter third of the show, a feisty and articulate representative of another demographic–she's a young Black woman who presents some strong, cogent counters to the issues that Heidi has raised. The show's final segment is a pro-and-con exchange between the two on the topic, "The U.S. Constitution should be abolished." Thirty-five-page booklets containing the text of the Constitution are distributed to everyone in the theater, and the debate concludes the show with a decision about the winner.
Schreck's script is full of concepts and theories, profoundly humanized by her opinions and anecdotes. Morrissey's portrait is witty and sure-footed. Portraying young Heidi, she captures some of the nervousness and energy of adolescence, especially when talking about some delicate and personal experiences. But she also steps outside the set's proscenium frame to comment on more adult matters to the audience. Designer Brian c. Mehring's set features high walls emblazoned with the handwritten text of the initial section of the Constitution and festooned with portraits of the signers–all white men, many of them landowners, and some slaveholders. It's a none-too-subtle reminder of how, two centuries ago, a narrow slice of men created a document that could not possibly have anticipated many of the issues shaping today's nation and the world beyond. In many cases, the founders went in directions that seem simply wrong today. Several audio clips from Supreme Court considerations of cases that deal with the central issues the show discusses demonstrate the garbled language and logic of contemporary justices who continue to demonstrate that there's plenty of room for more progress.
Schreck's Broadway production was filmed and shared as a video on Amazon Prime beginning in 2020, so some people have probably seen it, and the chance to witness Schreck delivering these stories inspired by her life is definitely worthwhile. Nevertheless, it's all the more immediate and valuable to attend and participate in a live performance such as this one at Ensemble Theatre. Morrissey, Fiorini and Solomon deliver Schreck's messages in powerful, meaningful form, and their delivery, at high verbal speed in Robertson's staging, is viscerally exciting.
By the end of the opening night performance, the audience was vociferously participating in and reacting to the issues being raised. What the Constitution Means to Me is a timely piece of theater, perhaps even more in 2023 than it was five years ago. It's a call to action to all American citizens to be informed and engaged, and one that parents would do well to bring teenagers to see, young people who will inherit a nation shaped by this important document.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs through October 1, 2023, at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine Street, in Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit www.ensemblecincinnati.com or call 513-421-3555.