Review of "What the Constitution Means to Me" at Capital Repertory Theatre
by Katie Beltramo
Capital RepertoryTheatre opens its 2023/24 season with “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Heidi Schreck’s personal and timely exploration of how the U.S.Constitution shaped her life and the women around her. Schreck pulls from her experiences as a 15-year-old touring American Legions to debate the US Constitution for college scholarships, as well as from her family's history as she examines whom the US Constitution protects.
"What the Constitution Means to Me" was nominated for two Tony Awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, but beyond that, critics are raving about this play. The New York Times called it the “best and most important new play of the season,” The Washington Post declares "It is an act of patriotism to see it," and the critic from The New Yorker says "It should play in every city in America."
So, why the fervor? This play is ardently, passionately patriotic while acknowledging that the United States has been an imperfect experiment from the beginning. The tug between the simplicity of youthful idealism and the complexities of our country's historic and continuing inequality is the heart of the play, and it's articulated through Schreck's own family history in which her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother endured abuse and hardship, apparently unprotected by constitutional freedom. Yes: this play's subject matter is tough. It is recommended for ages 14 and up, and there is discussion of domestic violence, sexual assault, abortion, and generally heavy topics. Somehow, there are plenty of laughs as well.
This play feels almost like two productions in one. First, there is a sort of re-enactment of Schrek's younger self presenting on the stage that is set up to transport us into an American Legion hall (with enough flexibility to include a Dirty Dancing poster). While Schreck spoke from the heart in the original production, at Capital Rep, Schreck is played by Kim Stauffer, who is convincing enough that it's easy to forget that she's acting. This portion is followed by a live debate about the US Constitution between Schreck and a young debater (at Capital Rep, this is played by either Isabel Sanchez or Isabella Brown, depending on the night), and the audience is encouraged to cheer, boo, and generally amp up the energy.
"What the Constitution Means to Me" also feels extremely intimate and personal. While the production and even the debate follows a script, the actors offer personal information and variations in the debate that bring their own personalities in, so much so that it's difficult to perceive where the script ends and the heartfelt confessions begin. For example, Jay Sefton, who plays the Legionnaire and offers up his "good male energy," recalls growing up in an environment in which masculinity felt inherently violent. Between his words and the specifics in the debate, I couldn't resist checking out the version on Amazon Prime to compare notes (they're different). This feeling of intimacy is enhanced by the setting: Capital Rep is a small theatre, making it feel, by the end, that we're all in conversation together about the Constituion and what our American democracy means in the past, present, and future.
As American society has become increasingly polarized, it feels difficult to debate. Opposing sides have been firmly drawn without much middle ground. The nature of a theatrical audience tends to have a particular political leaning, but even in that setting, there was raucous support on both sides of the debate grappling with big questions about our democracy. For me, it was a particular treat to watch the show with my guest, an exchange student living in the US for the school year. Being together in a room with a bunch of people who care deeply and want to ponder big intellectual questions about our country is galvanizing and surprisingly moving.
One thing I love best about going to the theatre with teenagers is that it can spark conversations that you might not have in everyday life. I'll often come up with questions to get you started. In this case, the most obvious conversation starter is to continue the debate, although there are plenty of others, including how Heidi's perspective changes and how Heidi's mom's attitudes changed between when she was a teen and the present. If you or someone in your family is triggered by talk about violence against women, this is not the show for you. Otherwise, if you have teens, you should absolutely plan to go.
What the Constitution Means to Me is playing at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany through Sunday, October 8. The show's run time is about one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission. For schedule and ticket information, call 581-346-6204 or visit capitalrep.org.
Photos provided by Capital Repertory Theatre. Credit: Photography by Doug Liebig @oeprophoto
© 2023 Katie Beltramo.
Katie Beltramo, a mom of two, is communication director at Kids Out and About and blogs at Capital District Fun.