Regional Reviews: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley
What the Constitution Means to Me
First presented in 2017, the play made a stop at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2018 before jumping to Off-Broadway and then Broadway for Tony nominations and finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2019. Playwright Heidi Schreck fronted each edition as well as the 2020 streaming adaptation available on Amazon Prime.
Don't, however, dash straight to video because doing so deprives you of the warm, funny, vibrant, and ineffably special experience of seeing it revealed in front of you on stage at the Pearl McManus Theater.
Robyn Cohen deftly shifts between Heidi today, fifteen-year-old Heidi in competition at one of a probably endless array of American Legion halls (expertly realized by set designer Jimmy Cuomo), and eventually as herself. She's joined in this meta trick of time and identity by Craig Wroe, first as the Legionnaire running the contest, then as the actor playing him, and then also as himself. Of his three phases, Wroe is most inspired and wonderfully dry as the small-town vet who looks to be one pitchfork shy of an "American Gothic" tableaux vivant. Completing the cast is the radiant Tia Laulusa as a fictional debater and, yes, as herself.
Schreck crafted the time-shifting narrative that jumps from the stage present to stage past to the real present to make audiences think about our nation's foundational document and its amendments (most specifically the fourteenth), which seek to correct some of its inherent shortcomings. Cohen brilliantly bookends the hilarious concepts of the unrestrained teen character ("the Constitution is a witch's crucible") with the heart-broken adult awareness of our country's deeply flawed reality.
The latter comes into sharp focus as the teen and adult Heidis barrel through a speed round of analysis on the four clauses of Section 1 which deal with citizenship, rights and privileges, due process, and equal protection. Young Heidi dutifully explains, with the occasional meandering sidebar, and strains to meet the contest criteria of linking the topic to something personal, while adult Heidi interjects with facts and case studies that undercut the Amendment's lofty ideals. Rachel Maddow fans will love this part.
At times the play does feel like "preaching to the choir" with its California audience. Of course, we believe in fairness and justice for all. Who doesn't? Well, lots of folks, past and present, as we are reminded with example after example, almost to the point of deflation. Most of the focus is on women and their experiences, but Schreck leaves ample room for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ perspectives.
Cohen nimbly manages the emotional balance of aspiration and humor with pathos and a righteous anger that tilts but never fully topples into polemic stridency. Yes, she gets pissed sometimes, but there is a really good reason when she does. Many good reasons, unfortunately.
The evening makes its final time-warping jump to the left when Cohen and company take off the mantle of character and engage in the most pivotal question of the evening: Should the Constitution be revised or revoked? The production would have you believe that the answer, after a point-counterpoint series of verbal parries and thrusts between Cohen and Laulusa, is up to you, the audience, and can change every night. Perhaps. However, that is very true in the existential sense and each of us will want to seriously consider Schreck's precis in the months to come.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs through January 28, 2024, at Dezart Performs, The Pearl McManus Theater, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, Palm Springs CA. Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $48. For tickets and information, please visit dezartperforms.org or call 760-322-0179, Extension 1.