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BWW Review: WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME Stuns Nashville Audiences in TPAC Run

Heidi Schreck's Challenging and Provocative Play Comes at the Perfect Time

What the Constitution Means To Me
Cassie Beck in the national tour of What The Constitution Means to Me.

If it were at all possible - say, if I were rich or something akin to being rich - I would buy huge blocks of tickets to Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me so that everyone could see it and be as affected by it as I was. For to be quite honest, What the Constitution Means to Me is one of the best theatrical experiences of my career and one of the most edifying experiences of my entire life.

Of course, there are those who might ascribe my actions and my response to a tendency toward hyperbole and exaggeration, but they would be wrong. Believe me when I say that Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me should be required viewing for anyone in this country - heck, even this world - who wants to be involved in figuring out how to make democracy work and to ensure that everyone is recognized and validated.

The production comes to Nashville at the perfect time, a week after Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn embarrassed herself during Judiciary Committee hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is nominated to become the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, by asking the esteemed jurist to tell her that which defines a "woman." Blackburn, who obviously is no constitutional scholar, could certainly benefit from seeing Schreck's incisive and informative play and would certainly find the pocket U.S. Constitution given to every audience member a valuable resource for her personal library. That is, of course, if Blackburn is a reader - and there is scant proof of that to be found.

As I have maintained throughout my life, in general, and as a theater critic, in particular, for the past several decades, theater is the most transportive and most transformative art form known to humanity and there is no exemplar more profound than What the Constitution Means to Me. Now featured in a national tour directed by Oliver Butler (who directed Schreck prior to and during its Broadway run) that brings it this week to Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center,

Schreck's play - which became a hit on Broadway in 2019, aka "before pandemic times" - is a heartfelt, emotional, profoundly moving and highly personal recollection of the author's own precocious youth and her experiences taking part in speech contests sponsored by the American Legion in which teenagers are encouraged to extol the virtues of the United States Constitution, while somehow connecting its venerated text to their own lives.

What the Constitution Means To Me
Cassie Beck

Doesn't exactly sound like a rip-roaring night at the theater, I admit, yet somehow in the course of an hour and 45 minutes, Schreck's story is brought to life with such fervent enthusiasm and refreshing candor that one sits riveted, thoroughly engaged in the story playing out onstage, learning about the many wonders and shockingly horrific exclusions to be found among the thousands of words in the U.S. Constitution.

By definition, Schreck's play is a meta experience, i.e.: "a consciously and playfully self-referential story, conversation, etc." - and in recreating the world in which the playwright grew up to present a story so universal and so encompassing that you may find yourself on a personal journey of self-discovery in the process, she succeeds in crafting a civics lesson that outshines anything learned in a classroom. Be prepared to have your patriotic illusions shattered and to be moved, hopefully to action, by tales of the inequities suffered still today by those less privileged.

Listening to the story of Heidi Schreck's great-great grandmother Teresa, who came to America as the bride of a logger in Washington state in the mid-19th century (she was, for all intents and purposes, bought for $75 from a mail-order catalogue), only to die by the age of 36 as an inmate, diagnosed with "melancholia," in an asylum is harrowing. Yet it is but one part of a generations-long history of a family that is at once fractured and fascinating.

Rather, the stories about Schreck's family - no matter how horrific or even hilarious they may be - will likely trigger something within yourself that will set you on a path to enlightenment. In fact, I'll wager that you will learn so much about democracy, especially the 200-plus year experiment in the uniquely American form of democracy, that you will feel inspired to learn more. And how beautiful and altogether crazy - even I admit this review sounds like I'm drunk on some kind of Founders' rum punch or something even more potent - is that? You go to the theater to be entertained and you come away from the experience, illuminated by newly gained knowledge.

Kudos to Schreck, of course, for submitting herself and her family's stories to the consideration of scores of strangers in order to edify them, but perhaps more importantly for the skill with which she cobbles the tales together in a compelling and provocative way to make us think. Honestly, I was so emotional throughout What the Constitution Means to Me that every nerve ending in me seemed exposed and I felt close to tears listening to the beautifully written script delivered by Cassie Beck, who takes on the role of Heidi Schreck (both the playwright and the character) in the national touring company. Beck's dynamic performance fills TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre with the absolute magic of live theater, bringing the play to life with enough energy that it's over long before you can believe it's time to go home.

Beck, a graduate of the University of Memphis, went to high school in Corinth, Mississippi - which is, interestingly, my old theatrical stomping grounds (so I may be predisposed to hyperbolic flights of fancy in describing her performance) - and she delivers the goods, with disarming humor, sharp focus and with the undefinable grace of a consummate storyteller herself. Beck is joined onstage by Gabriel Marin, who plays an American Legionnaire who moderates the "speechifying" and the debate that is the last third of the evening's presentation. Together, Beck and Marin bring the script to life in what might just as easily be an acting master class for both the initiated and the neophyte among their rapt audience.

What the Constitution Means To Me
Jocelyn Shek and Cassie Beck

During the evening's final half-hour or so, Beck steps out of her role as Heidi Schreck to engage in a spirited exchange with a teenaged debate champion (on opening night, Jocelyn Shek battled Beck and she alternates the role with Emilyn Toffler) that results in one audience member being selected to judge the outcome of said debate. Their exchange is spirited and fast-paced, but be forewarned, the takeaway is just as confounding and as enlightening as that which precedes it.

What the Constitution Means to Me continues at TPAC's James K. Polk Theater through Sunday, so you have time to catch the production before it pulls up stakes and leaves Nashville. What with everything we've witnessed in the past few years, you owe it to yourself - and your fellow Americans - to give some thought to what the Constitution means to you.

What the Constitution Means to Me. By Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler. Presented by Broadway at TPAC. At The James K. Polk Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through Sunday, April 3. For further information, go to www.tpac.org or call (615) 782-4040.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus



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