What the Constitution Means to Me - theater review

Through October 1 at Syracuse Stage
Malaika Wanjiku, Phillip Taratula and Mel House.
Malaika Wanjiku, Phillip Taratula and Mel House.(Michael Davis)
Published: Sep. 18, 2023 at 4:26 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 18, 2023 at 4:38 PM EDT
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What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck directed by Melissa Crespo.

Heidi Schreck starred in the original Broadway production of What the Constitution Means to Me, playing herself. Because of this, a regional theater life of this play seemed dubious, but fortunately the author has incorporated text for a new actress, therefore new productions. This time it is Mel House who plays Heidi, but she is really playing herself, kind of. Essentially a meta interactive theatrical experience, What the Constitution Means to Me highlights the power of theater to provoke debate and discussion.

Set in an American Legion Hall in Washington state, Heidi/Mel recalls her days a teenage Constitution lover, expert, and debater. A legionnaire played by Phillip Taratula acts as moderator and official when an official competition between Heidi as a teenager and an unseen opponent begins in earnest. From the beginning you have the feeling that Heidi’s enthusiasm and dedication to the document will falter. This emerging crack cleverly coincides with Heidi’s gradual revelation of generational trauma, domestic abuse. Ingeniously this presents the problem of the constitution today, theory vs. practice. In theory the constitution and its amendments should protect everyone equally from when it was written to present day, but in practice it doesn’t, especially women and marginalized minorities.

The idea of individual rights versus institutional or societal rights is also enforced by the Legionnaire’s recollection of his search for identity and place in the world. His story and humanization are necessary to illuminate the problems of a document written over two centuries ago. Philip is a real person, just like us. When the story becomes more intimate and detailed, underscoring individuals versus society, the audience’s interest escalates.

Yet, the play manages to not be pedantic, slow, or too teacher-ly. It is brisk and entertaining. Talented director Melissa Carpo keeps it all moving quickly and never sacrifices story for issues or vice versa. The audience is completely engaged when pocket copies of the constitution are handed out and we are asked to vote on whether to keep the current one or disregard it. Opposing sides are presented by Mel and a student of the constitution who was played in the performance I saw by Malaika Wanjiku.

What the Constitution Means to Me may not be a traditional play, but it is a great theatrical experience that fully embraces the power and purpose of live theater.

At Syracuse Stage through October 1.