Bold Conversations: Theatre Nova's "What the Constitution Means to Me" explores big issues on a small stage
New York Times theater critic Jesse Green hailed Heidi Schreck’s play What the Constitution Means to Me as “not just the best play on Broadway, but also the most important.”
Here was a theater piece that grappled with real issues while also being funny and intimate. The playwright played herself, offering her story as a template for long-simmering grievance.
Schreck’s play was not the usual Broadway fare. The set was simple, the approach was friendly and beguiling—and then, quietly, outraged. Schreck used her own story to explore what the U.S. Constitution got right, where it failed, and its impact on the lives of everyone.
The play opened on Broadway in 2018, in the wake of the Me Too movement that put a bright spotlight on male privilege, violence, and smug disregard for half of the human race.
Yes, the play is about the Constitution but its real subject is a dawning feminism and how that hallowed document has helped and hindered the freedom of women and minorities over the last 235 years.
Theatre Nova is the perfect venue for Schreck’s play. It’s a small theater in the heart of a great university town, a place where arguments about the Constitution really matter. Nova is presenting What the Constitution Means to Me through November 9.
The small Nova stage perfectly accommodates the simple recreation of an American Legion hall. It was in American Legion halls that a 15-year-old Heidi Schreck earned money for college by going around the country lecturing on the Constitution and debating with teenagers on different aspects of the revered document.
Emily Wilson-Tobin plays Heidi Schreck, and later in the play, herself. Wilson-Tobin begins as a funny, teasing 15-year-old who had mastered the content of the Constitution but got lost in tangled metaphors and overwrought orations.
But this is how it begins. The Constitution would have a big impact on the future actress, playwright, producer, etc.
Wilson-Tobin projects the charm, the humor, and the hurt that makes Schreck’s story so important in these uncertain times. Wilson-Tobin is an excellent guide through the debates over a woman’s right to an abortion and the conflicting and agonizing debates over every word in the Constitution. At one point, a tape is presented of a pointless debate between Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Stephen Breyer over the meaning of “shall” while the real issues get buried in legalese. A couple of other tapes offer other insights into the workings of the Supreme Court—positive and negative depending on your point of view.
Wilson-Tobin is especially good at shifting from simple conversation to deeper and highly personal issues. Statistics, weighty court rulings, and twisted histories become poor excuses for denying the rights of women and minority groups.
David Galido takes on several roles. He is a funny, by-the-book Legionnaire who oversees Heidi’s presentation and debate at a Legion hall in a small town in Washington. He is also an acting friend of Heidi who has his own dawning understanding of toxic masculinity. And Galido plays himself who also came to understand the problem. His performance is both touching and amusing.
The play takes on many issues but it comes back to the Constitution.
Skye Solea, a 17-year-old actress and filmmaker, joins Wilson-Tobin in a debate over what to do about the Constitution: keep it or start all over again. The debate is lively, and it will vary from night to night as the two take different positions. Solea presented a strong argument for starting over. Wilson-Tobin made clear the many pitfalls. Solea presents the kind of self-assured young woman who will make her own case for a better future.
This is an emotionally engaging presentation and it deserves a big audience. These issues will always be with us and a strong, open, and honest debate is what this country and the Constitution are supposed to be about.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Theatre Nova production of Heidi Schreck’s "What the Constitution Means to Me" will be presented at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays through November 11, at 2 pm on Sundays through November 12, and mask-required performances at 8 pm on October 26 and November 2 and 9. For tickets, visit theatrenova.org or call 734-635-8450.