SALT LAKE CITY — As a 15-year-old girl traveling the United States as part of an American Legion-sponsored constitutional speech contest in the late 1970s, Heidi Schreck may have found time to daydream about one day performing on Broadway. It is unlikely that her fantasies included her performing that same award-winning speech or rhapsodizing about constitutional amendments for eager audiences. And yet, in 2019 that is exactly what happened. Schreck performed her autobiographical play for audiences across the nation, including in an extended Broadway run, until the show was forced to close during the pandemic. A recording of the production is even available on Amazon Prime.
Having followed the show’s explosive popularity from a distance for years, I was thrilled to learn that this Pulitzer Prize-nominated show is being produced by Pioneer Theatre company. Director Karen Azenberg‘s production of What the Constitution Means to Me, staring Laura Jordan as Heidy Schreck, did not disappoint. Jordan is supported on stage by the excellent Ben Cherry and a nightly rotation of local high school debaters. On opening night I was impressed to see Taryn Bedore from Riverton High School go toe-to-toe with Jordan during the second half of this interactive, funny, infuriating, thoughtful production.
Schreck’s script has the lead actress playing both Schreck’s current self and 15-year-old self, with additional explorations of herself at age 17, 21, and other critical moments of her womanhood. Development of the play only began in 2017 as part of a 10-minute-play festival, and the script is in direct conversation with the political moment in which it was birthed. Schreck’s work is unabashedly feminist and is unapologetic about its goal of confronting the audience with the terrifying reality of life as a woman in the US, both past and present. This is most noticeable — and impactful — as Schreck shares snippets of the life stories of several generations of the women in her family and the legacy of violence they worked against. She also explores the causes of women’s danger for just existing, including the number of women who are killed by their partners and reviews the Supreme Court cases that have impacted the protections for women’s bodies and lives. Lest this sound too dour, Schreck’s script manages all of this with enthusiastic humor and joyful energy that is fully captured by the actors.
Though Jordon is undeniably the star attraction of the show, I was touched by the sweet, and meta, aside where Cherry, playing Heidi’s actor friend Mike, who has been asked to portray the actual man and veteran who supported young Heidi’s speech career, addressed the audience to share his own complicated wrestle with the performance of masculinity and gender. Cherry shines with vigor, humor and vulnerability throughout his performance. Taryn, the young debater, facing off against Jordan (as herself) in the final act of the evening, was inspiring to watch as the two bandied and encouraged the audience to get involved in the debate and to find a real life way to show what the constitution means to each American individually.
Jo Winiarski‘s set design is detailed, practical, and fits the play’s setting in every way. In combination with Brian Tovar‘s excellent lighting design, and Phillip R. Lowe‘s costume design the production elements fit together with seamless efficiency. On this opening night, there were some technical challenges with Jordan’s microphone that required her to carry a handheld mic for the entire second half of the show. This adjustment was handled flawlessly by both the stage crew and Jordan, and (considering the direct address nature of the production this change) had no negative impact on the show.
Weather you love, hate, or feel apathetic about the nation and its founding document, I encourage readers to vote with their feet to see What The Constitution Means To Me. Pioneer has a perfect production that invigorates as it aggravates, and it unites Americans as they strive toward the shared hope of a more perfect union.