By Lynn Venhaus
Our past, present and future intersect in playwright Heidi Schreck’s deeply affecting memoir, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” to make a riveting statement on what our rights are as an American during the 236 years since the document’s adoption.
Far from a dry lecture on rules of law and bills of rights, this persuasive play is alive with hope and humor because of the passion displayed by the performers, playwright, and production team.
Directed with conviction and a contemporary focus by Nancy Bell, this Max & Louie Production wears its heart on its sleeve about liberty and justice for all, firmly establishing fervent exchanges on women’s lack of protection, and the need for a more perfect union. Could we modernize the Constitution to assuage the inherent gender and racial biases?
Schreck’s compelling 2017 play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2019 as well as Best Play nominee at the Tony Awards, and winner of the Obie Award for off-Broadway play, hits a bullseye in so many ways.
Force-of-nature Michelle Hand, charmingly embodying Schreck as her adult self and a version of her then-15-year-old in 1989, chronicles what four generations of women in Schreck’s family endured and key impactful moments in her life. She is so relatable you identify with her plight.
The play’s structure outlines Shreck as a debater in 1989, who gave speeches on the U.S. Constitution to win money for college. The set, designed by Dunsi Dai is an American Legion hall in Wenatchee, Wash., with framed military veterans lining the walls and a World War II veteran representing the moderator and judges.
Isaiah di Lorenzo compassionately portrays the Legionnaire and then makes the story personable as a version of himself.
Both Bell and Hand are masterful storytellers, and their ease with the material immediately engages us.
While feminism is a major focus, so are other injustices regarding marginalized citizens – and immigration, sexual and domestic abuse — and Schreck’s points are delivered with such urgency as to galvanize the audience.
The use of historic audio recordings from several Supreme Court cases emphasizes Schreck’s points – including Justices Potter Stewart, Earl Warren, Stephen Breyer, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Phillip Evans’ sound design is impressive, as is lighting design by Zak Metalsky.
Because this show is so skillfully staged, it sparks a fire in the audience – uplifting, and full of possibilities about how the next generation of Americans could change the contradictions and failures while holding on to our aspirations.
The final portion is somewhat improvised, where Schreck and a local high school debater discuss whether the Constitution should be abolished and replaced. The audience is the jury, and one member delivers a final verdict. The experience is an interactive one, and the audience wasn’t timid in expressing their opinions.
As the three teenage actresses alternating as a student debater for each performance, Riley Carter Adams, Aislyn Morrow, and Maahi Saini bring their energy and youthful interpretations to the live theater experience.
On opening night, April 6, Riley Carter Adams was poised and personable, able to explain her stance to the audience with persuasive skills.
The play runs 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission, and its timeliness is key. The entertaining presentation keeps us charmed, the facts keep us on our toes, and the intent wills us to pay attention.
Let’s face it, we’ve been through a lot the past few years, with the global pandemic and political tribalism, an attempted insurrection and threat to democracy, but the dialogue here is fiery to show us what should matter, and progress is possible.
I left fired up, linking a personal connection between women’s lives and the Constitution — as well as the right to debate and freedom of speech – and the work we must do for domestic tranquility and general welfare for all.
Max and Louie Productions presents “What the Constitution Means to Me” from April 5 to 23 at The Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis, 63103. Free secured parking Tickets are on sale at www.maxandlouie.com or by phone at Metrotix (314)534-1111. Times: Thursdays at 7:30pm (April 6, 13, 20), Fridays at 8pm (April 7, 14, 21), Saturdays at 3pm & 8pm (April 8, 15, 22) and Sundays at 3pm (April 16, 23)
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.