Review: WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Syracuse Stage

This Production Runs Through October 1st.

By: Sep. 18, 2023
Review: WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Syracuse Stage
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Syracuse Stage kicks off its 50th anniversary season with Heidi Schreck’s "What the Constitution Means to Me", a clever, poignant, multifaceted gem of a play. Literally framed like an old photograph that stirs memory, the play begins as the middle-aged Heidi Schreck (Mel House) steps into a picture of her teenage self engaged in competitive debate. We learn that as a 15-year-old, at the urging of her mother, Heidi attempts to raise scholarship money for college by competing in American Legion speech contests about the US Constitution.

It all begins humorously as the young wide-eyed idealist and pandering capitalist passionately pontificates and praises the founding fathers’ intellect and foresight. Her speech is a scatterbrained explosion of youthful enthusiasm and high-mindedness presented solely for monetary reward. Philip Taratula’s Legionaire, the contest facilitator, is stereotypically stiff, stern, and officious.

He is the perfect adult foil to the whirlwind that is Heidi. From the onset, "What the Constitution Means to Me" promises a light-hearted and personal look at youthful dreams and aspirations.

As a memory play, the adult Heidi acts as narrator and commentator juxtaposing her mature outlook against her youthful exuberance.  The effect is bittersweet, comic and nostalgic.  But the real genius of the play and its structure is not in this juxtaposition but in Heidi’s consistency.  

We discover that the mature Heidi still possesses a whirlwind of a mind, a scatterbrain that seizes on ideas, finds value in metaphor and enthusiastically seeks high-minded truth.  It is because of Heidi’s intellectual energy that the play becomes more than a memory. It is an invitation to think, debate, engage in discussions about America, our Constitution and our purpose as citizens of this country and the world. Part narrative, part lecture, part argument and part comforting hug, the play scatters light on what it means to be a citizen in troubled times.  

It engages the audience to see and try to understand the struggles involved in forging a government, examining both historical and current problems.  It looks at our Constitution not as a revered document frozen in time to be protected and preserved, but as a working, living and evolving bond, a promise to secure individual rights and freedoms. 

For a play with only three characters, it is full of twists, turns and surprises. Mel House as Heidi is appropriately ebullient throughout, but what distinguishes her performance is the emotional depths she mines, capturing the intensely personal stories of the author’s work. She effortlessly moves between humor and pathos. Philip Taratula makes a masterful transition that is surprising and vulnerable. In his hands, this small role rings true, allowing the audience to feel a kinship with the actor, which ultimately becomes central to the purpose of the play.  Emily Castillo-Langley as the student embodies the hopes and concerns of young people today as they move into the future.

Ann Beyersdorfer’s set, designed as a framed portrait of an American Legion Hall, captures a moment in time. It is appropriately dressed though somewhat exaggerated and cartoonish with flags, multiple plaques, over-sized portraits of veterans, and a giant bingo board. As the actors move in and out of the frame, they seamlessly move in and out of the past.  Kathy A. Perkins's lighting design subtly intensifies the poignant moments of the play and also functions to invite the audience into discussions and debates when appropriate.

Syracuse Stage’s production of "What the Constitution Means to Me" is first-rate. It is critical, sympathetic, funny and hopeful. In these troubled political times, it offers the balm of respect and appreciation of one another’s humanity to soothe the burns caused by the friction of fighting that is necessary to keep democracy alive. 

"What the Constitution Means to Me" runs thru October 1st. Tickets can be purchased by going to SyracuseStage.org or by calling (315) 443-3275 or by visiting the box office at 820 East Genesee Street.
 




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