Timing, as people often say, is everything. Just a few days after former President Donald Trump called for “terminating” the United States Constitution, Florida Studio Theatre has opened Heidi Schreck’s Obie Award-winning play, What the Constitution Means to Me. The company couldn’t have planned for that coincidence, but it lends a little more urgency to the production.
Schreck, an actress as well as a playwright, was inspired to write the play (an off-Broadway production during 2018-19 and on Broadway in 2019) by her own experiences as a teenager, participating in Constitutional debates around the country for college scholarship money. So, in the beginning of the show, we see Amy Bodnar as that young Heidi, channeling the enthusiasm and pep of a 15-year-old girl who’s as passionate about the document as she is about Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.
Taking the stage in an American Legion Hall (convincingly rendered with flags, veterans’ photos and more patriotic props by scenic designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay), Heidi has the chance to dissect a portion of the Fourteenth Amendment and dive deep into the Ninth, which eventually leads her to, seemingly, digress into some personal history. Mainly, that concerns the role of domestic violence and mistreatment of women, whether it be that of a great-great-grandmother who was purchased as a bride from a catalogue, or her beloved grandmother, whose second husband battered her and abused her daughters, in a situation she couldn’t bring herself to end. In some painful moments, Heidi also reveals her own abortion and a college experience that sounds very much like date rape.
It's all part of a bigger picture that reminds us how the Constitution, written more than 200 years ago by white, property-owning (and frequently slave-holding) men, never addressed women or people of color initially, and how it’s more a constitution of “negative rights” than positive ones. (I’ll leave you to Google those terms for a more thorough explanation.) It’s frequently fascinating, sometimes dramatic, but also very often funny, so don’t go to the theater expecting some dry dissertation (even though, unless you’re already a scholar of the Constitution, you are bound to learn some things).
Through it all, Bodnar (under the well-tuned direction of Kate Alexander) keeps us absolutely engaged, and she interacts believably with Kevin Loreque, who appears at first as the American Legion member managing the teen Heidi’s debates, but later turns up as another character in a scene that sheds light on how men, too, can be unable to fully feel themselves in a world where toxic masculinity often rules. Bodnar also displays a rapport with the appealing Deysha Nelson, who appears late in the show to debate with her about whether the Constitution should be abolished or not, and more than holds her own. (Marissa Gast alternates this role during the run.)
And, in a way that feels natural and necessary, the play then gets the audience involved in that very important question, asking for pro and con reactions and, ultimately, for one member to join them and formally decide yea or nay.
One assumes the reactions, and the result, will be very different from night to night. But What the Constitution Means to Me should leave viewers both thinking and entertained every time. The show runs through Feb. 26 in FST’s Keating Theatre; for tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.