theRep’s What The Constitution Means to Me: Required History Class for Everyone
Playwright Heidi Schreck has written a provocative, mind-stretching examination of self through the lens of the US Constitution. The Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award nominee for best play “What The Constitution Means to Me” focuses on Schreck’s journey as a fifteen-year-old girl who traveled the country winning debates and prize money on The Constitution as sponsored by the American Legion, that she ultimately used to pay for her college education. She does tell the audience, rather apologetically, that it was 1989 and it was a state school, but nevertheless, she paid her way through college. Schreck also presents to the audience in real-time in the present day sharing her observations and the pitfalls and issues with the document written nearly 200 years ago by a group of white men.
Kim Stauffer returns to the theRep stage to completely inhabit the body and soul of Schreck. Her tour de force performance takes the audience on a whirlwind journey from the youthful exuberance of a fifteen-year-old child to a realistic mature adult. She connects with the audience the moment she makes her entrance down the aisle of the theatre for the next hour and forty-one minutes without ever leaving the stage and rarely pausing her presentation. In many ways, she gives us a presentation rather than a performance. Meaning that, in the most positive sense of the word, she is so totally captivating, engaging, and real, you will completely believe she is speaking to a group who has come to hear her story, her beliefs and learn her past. She transitions from the past to the present with flawless acumen.
Her discussion centers on whether The Constitution is flawed based on the age of the document and the fact that men created it and nowhere does the word woman ever appear. Should we discard the document and rewrite it to more accurately reflect the world we live in today? This begs an entirely different set of problems: who should write it, how would the authors be chosen, and by whom in order to accurately reflect today’s world?
Along the journey we travel with Schreck, we learn of the abuse that was suffered by the many women in her past. Abuse by her grandfather toward her grandmother, mother and even her great-great-grandmother who died in a mental institution at 36 from melancholia. She also shares her personal saga of having an abortion in her 20s and being a victim of sexual abuse while in college. Her story is not easy to hear, yet in many ways it is engrossing. It is presented without apology, in fact, with bits of humor to lighten the atmosphere along the way. And ultimately, all return full circle to the debate about The Constitution.
Sharing the stage, which Juliana von Haubrich has beautifully designed to resemble the meeting room of the Wenatchee, Washington VFW, complete with a wall of pictures of various vets, not to be lost on anyone who just happens to be all men, is Jay Sefton as the Legionnaire. Shefton is the consummate performer, able to become totally absorbed in the action of the play even when just watching his stopwatch to finally relating his own story to the audience. His personal story, when he too breaks character to speak of his journey as well as his emotional responses to Shreck’s journey, the plight of abuse of women, particularly indigenous women, shines the light on just how perfect he is for this role.
Late in the play, we meet the Debater, smartly and exuberantly performed by Isabel Sanchez, who has come to debate with Schreck the pros and cons of saving or scraping The Constitution.
Laura Dubin’s lighting design moves the audience from past to present, from debate to discussion to including the audience in the play seamlessly. WAM’s Producing Artistic Director, Kristen van Ginhoven, returns to theRep to direct this ensemble. She brings out the sensitivity of the plight of women, the abhorrent abuse suffered by generations of mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and aunts who have preceded and still live among us against the stunning backdrop of the US Constitution with a fervor, caring, and concern to both educate and instill a need for change. At no point during the play does it ever become “preachy”, rather it excites, challenges and provokes its audience to act, instill change and progress in a world that often seems to have mired itself in its own folly.
What the Constitution Means to Me is a riveting evening in the theatre. A wonderful, dynamic way for theRep to kick off their 2023–24 season. One of the most mentally stimulating times you will spend under the guise of being entertained. It is a history class that should be required attendance for every person.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs through October 8 at theRep 251 North Pearl St., Albany. For ticket information: www.capitalrep.org or call: 518-346-6204.