Friday, February 23, 2024

In divided times, the Colorado debut of Pulitzer finalist “What the Constitution Means to Me” is wise and funny

Is the American Legion having a moment?

At last month’s Sundance Film Festival, the makers of the documentary “Boys State,” about the American Legion’s high school program on representative government, returned with a sequel on Apple TV+, this one about the Missouri installment of Girls State of the American Legion Auxiliary.

Closer to home, the Boulder Ensemble Theater Company is visiting Denver with Heidi Schreck’s 2017 play, “What the Constitution Means to Me.” In the Obie Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-finalist film, the adult Schreck interacts with the teenager she once was – a teenager who knew a lot about the U.S. Constitution and who proved it by regularly winning sponsored competitions by the American Legion. She financed her university studies with the prize money.

Schreck starred in the original show and traveled with it to Broadway in 2019. The play’s decidedly feminist take on the vision, blind spots, and vulnerabilities of the U.S. Constitution took on urgency when Donald Trump took office. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision in 2022 (removing the constitutional right to abortion) has only highlighted its timeliness.

Legionnaire (Rodney Lizcano, foreground) and Jessica Robbie as Heidi in “What the Constitution Means to Me.” (Michael Ensminger, provided by BETC)

Jessica Robblee stars and Allison Watrous directs this funny and painful struggle with the nation’s founding document. BETC will reprise the show May 3-19 at Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center.

Drawn from her life, Schreck’s play features 15-year-old Heidi from Wenatchee, Washington. As the play opens, the playwright stands in an imaginary version of Leyden-Chiles-Wickersham American Legion Post 10 (pleasantly rendered by the set designer). Tina Anderson) during the regional finals.

The adult Schreck says that by the time she was 15, she was obsessed with the Constitution — as well as the Salem witch trials, theater and Patrick Swayze. At one point, she holds up the book that was the go-to guide to her adolescence: “Your Rugged Constitution,” originally published in 1950. (Seven amendments were still to come.) Although she promises to reenact one of her presentations winners, try as she might, Schreck can’t help but interrupt as a teenager.

In many ways, Schreck’s personal and political play is a consideration of who is included in the “your” of this book’s title. What rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and its amendments? She pays particular attention to the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments. Each played a role in the civil rights movement and, later, in securing women’s right to choose. The play makes judicious – sometimes hilarious – use of audio recordings of Supreme Court deliberations and decisions.

Although often victorious, young Heidi was not as adept as some of her competitors at making her arguments more personal. “What the Constitution Means to Me” makes up for this initial reluctance. The playwright weaves the stories of the women in her family into this rich tale of constitutional rights. Her great-great-grandmother was a mail-order bride who “died of melancholy.” The control of women’s bodies and the violence exercised against them are themes.

Wearing a lemony blazer and a cheeky smile, Robblee captures Shreck’s teenage spirit. She also inhabits the conflicting feelings and ironic ideas of a woman in her forties who has learned over time that her fondness for the Constitution was not always echoed by the founders or the legislators who followed .

Actor Rodney Lizcano brings a genius gravitas to the Legionnaire. He sits near the podium, timing and wearing the organization’s uniform cap and, occasionally, a grimace of concern.

Heidi (Jessica Robblee) with the book that was her favorite book at age 15: “Your Rugged Constitution.” (Michael Ensminger, provided by BETC)

In a sweeping gesture of participatory inventiveness, “What the Constitution Means to Me” ends with the play’s protagonist debating with a young person whether the Constitution should be retained or abolished. A member of the audience, whether or not influenced by the debaters, has the last word. Instead of Schreck, Robblee plays, well, Robblee. And for the production currently at the Savoy, high school dynamo Mariam Faal plays the Debater. (From May 3 to 19, Nicole Siegler is set to play the debater and Josh Hartwell the legionnaire.)

In his stage notes for the play, Schreck writes a direction that feels like a description – apt but also hopeful – of our nation. “A living plant hides in the corner,” she writes of the ersatz room where the action takes place, “reminding us that even if this place is filled with ghosts, it also welcomes the living.”


“What the Constitution Means to Me”: written by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Allison Watrous. With Jessica Robblee, Rodney Lizcano and Mariam Faal in Denver. At the Savoy Denver, 2700 Arapahoe St., until February 11. At the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut, Boulder, May 5-15. For tickets and information for the Savoy show: For tickets to the May race:

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