WAM’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a Great Deal Indeed
Playwright Heidi Schreck toured the country as a 15-year-old competing in constitutional debates to win prize money to put herself through college which the Broadway actress Kate Baldwin playing Heidi tells us she was successful at earning the first of many applause lines of the night. “Thank you-It was thirty years ago and it was a state school but thank you.”
I found myself grinning widely at the first half hour of this play even though it was my third encounter with the script and I knew the darker turns that were around the corner, so accomplished, funny and quick was Ms. Baldwin’s take on Heidi. She gave the playwright, who was nominated for a Tony playing herself, a run for her money. One of my favorite things about Baldwin was how physical and charged her performance was. Her intensity and need to tell the story had her literally running in Kristen van Ginhoven’s production of this Pulitzer finalist play. It is being presented at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge through 6/3 as a co-production between Berkshire Theatre Group and WAM.
The play is separated into three sections; Heidi’s recreation of her 15-year-old self engaging in these contests and then the playwright explaining how the amendments had directly affected her through touching and harrowing stories from her life and finally with an improvised debate with a young Afro-Caribbean American performing artist Zurie Adams.
In her teenage contests Heidi recalls how she was challenged by the task of making her constitutional arguments personal and describes herself as “emotionally guarded.” Indeed, she is admonished by the timekeeper (Jay Sefton playing a Veteran who oversees her debates) and we notice her stumbling over a mention of her grandmother. Her teenage self describes the Constitution as a crucible where different elements meld together and transform into something new.
The adult Heidi who takes over the discussions on the ninth and fourteenth amendments enumerates the many ways in which the Constitution has historically and even today failed to protect women, immigrants, Native Americans, African Americans or herself specifically. She tells of her experience obtaining an abortion and of her grandmother’s second husband who beat and sexually abused her mother’s family. Late in the play it is noted in passing that the word woman does not appear in the Constitution. That smile I had on my face for that sweet idealistic, somewhat goofy, youthfully nerdy enthusiasm of the opening turns into a mournful, enraged scowl.
Kate Baldwin is sensational in the role. She breezes through the hour and a half with an energy stoked by a progressive performer’s zeal to change hearts and minds. Many in the audience were nodding their head frequently over the course of the evening but that doesn’t mean that this choir wasn’t moved anew by a brilliant preacher using all her gifts to lay the stakes out before us again. Exceptionally well done.
Jay Sefton is fully engaged and invested in the plight of women and people of color throughout the evening, even when he’s only keeping time at a table stage right but maybe that’s why when he becomes overwhelmed when describing being chosen by Heidi for his positive male energy we see how right he is for this play. His Little League story also brings some much needed positive male energy to the evening.
Zurie Adams arrives on stage late in the play and infuses a new, welcome brashness and kinetic force for Baldwin to play off of. She is fast, fun and formidable in her exchanges with the star. At first, I was worried about catching all she was saying but soon acclimated and caught every well-chosen word.
The setting by Julianna von Haubrich has a bit too much going on. There are photos of veterans and signs from the VFW post in Wenatchee, WA but there is also a basketball backboard and markings on the floor along with “We the People” spelled out. The lighting by Lara Dubin frequently brought the audience into the action and receded just as quickly.
Director Kristen van Ginhoven has announced her resignation as Artistic Director of WAM effective later this year and she is going out on a very high note indeed with this highly charged, provocative, powerfully political and persuasive play. It is deeply moving, informative and highly entertaining. It’s my favorite show I’ve seen her direct.
The play premiered in 2017 and has only become more urgent since then. It does not include the recent court decision Roe v. Wade and when Heidi tells us why she loves Amendment 9 so much: “It acknowledges that who we are now may not be who we will become. It leaves a little room…for the future self” we can leave the theater challenged to do better.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” runs through 6/3 at The Unicorn Theatre, tickets: 413-997-4444 or www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org