Saturday, August 19, 2023

"What the Constitution Means to Me" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

Lakeshore Players Theatre has an exciting lineup of shows for their 71st season in the lovely lakeside town of White Bear Lake. Including Ken Ludwig's Three Musketeers, the classic musical She Loves Me, the return of the Little House on the Prairie musical that premiered at the Guthrie in 2008, the ingenius play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the solo play I Am My Own Wife, and the hilarious musical that reminds us it's a privilege to pee - Urinetown. But first up, a one weekend only production of the regional premiere of the smart, funny, political, and personal Tony-nominated play What the Constitution Means to Me. It's such a fantastic production featuring strong performances and a detailed design, and such an important and relevant play, that I wish it had a longer run. So get out to Lakeshore Players Theatre on this warm summer weekend, and if you miss it, you'll have additional opportunities in September on Constitution Day, and in January (including student matinees) - click here for all of the details.

Written by Heidi Schreck, who also played the role of herself on Broadway, What the Constitution Means to Me is part civics lesson and part very personal story, as it very seriously (and humorously) explores the issues of domestic violence, abortion rights, and generational trauma. It is simultaneously depressing and hopeful about the state of our nation. Which is pretty on track for the world right now. The fun thing about it is that it doesn't pretend it's not a play; there are several fourth-wall breaking moments throughout the show. It's like a great solo Fringe show, in which the playwright/actor tells the story of her life in a funny, emotional, and relatable way. When Heidi was 15, she toured the country competing in debates about the constitution, which paid her way through college. She starts off being her 15-year old self, on a stage that looks very much like a small town American Legion hall in the '80s. She gives the speech as near as she can remember, full of all the teenage excitement and angst. But as things get tough, she drops the artifice and continues as her current self. Heidi's family tree includes violence and mental illness, and she skillfully connects those issues to the constitution and its amendments in clear and precise ways. Our constitution was not set up to protect women or people of color, in fact it barely considered them, and amendments have only come so far in remedying that.

Megan K. Pence as Heidi (photo courtesy of Lakeshore)
Megan K. Pence, who's the Managing Director of Lakeshore as well as an actor and director, plays the role of Heidi in a believable and affable way. She has such energy and light when she plays the 15-year-old Heidi, excited to be on stage talking about the thing she loves best - the constitution. And she also brings an emotional gravity to the adult Heidi, as she talks about her family history of domestic violence, sharing some startling statistics about the truly unsafe world that women often find themselves in, even (or especially) with someone who claims to love them. But while Megan does most of the talking, this isn't a solo piece. Rick Thompson plays the role of Heidi's friend Mike, who plays the role of the Legionnaire overseeing young Heidi's competition. He's very funny as the dry and matter-of-fact contest judge, and also has a lovely emotional speech when Mike becomes Mike and talks about his experiences as a gay man, and feeling unsafe in certain situations. After intermission our third cast-member makes an appearance, talented 9th grader Anna Dasari, playing herself (or a version of herself) debating Heidi on the topic "should the constitution be abolished." The audience gets to take part in the voting on this spirited debate, and the opening night crowd was into it - booing and cheering with nearly every statement.

Anna Desari, Megan K. Pence, and Rick Thompson
(photo courtesy of Lakeshore)
The American Legion hall is recreated at the front of the stage, with a wall under the proscenium covered with photos of men in uniform, and a shelf full of books. Bringing the stage forward like this makes it feel more intimate; Heidi is closer to us as she talks directly to the audience. The set design extends even into the audience, with framed newspapers announcing historic court decisions lining the walls. The lighting design helps to differentiate stories or mark emotional moments, and the sound design includes a couple of fascinating recordings of Supreme Court Justices in proceedings or interviews, including Ruth Bader Ginsberg's famous answer to the question: when will there be enough women on the Court - when there are nine.

This is such a brilliantly written play, in the way that it discusses the very foundation upon which our nation is built, but not in a dry textbook kind of way (although there are lots of facts and dates), but in the most personal way that makes me see, perhaps for the first time, just how much the constitution shapes our daily lives, and the unfair way it treats many American citizens. It's an ambitious and risky choice for this theater in the suburbs (perhaps the reason for the short run), to begin an ambitious season. If the success of this show is any indication, it's going to be a great season for Lakeshore Players Theater.

What the Constitution Means to Me performs tonight and tomorrow afternoon, with additional performances in September and January. You don't want to miss this one, especially if you live in the Northeast suburbs. And watch for The Three Musketeers, adapted by Ken Ludwig (whose work was recently seen in Murder on the Orient Express at the Guthrie and Sherwood at Theatre in the Round) opening in September.