“It is so good to see you.”
These are the first words of “What the Constitution Means to Me” and they may never have meant more than they did Wednesday at the Guthrie Theater, which had an opening night for the first time in 578 days. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled or postponed much of our flagship theater’s 2019-20 season and all of the 2020-21 season but performers and masked, vaccinated theatergoers finally can see one another again at the Guthrie.
The title seems to promise an earnest teenager’s take on our country’s foundational document and, for a while, that’s what we get. “Constitution” was a hit on Broadway, written and performed by Heidi Schreck. It’s based on competitive speeches she gave to earn college money, traveling from American Legion hall to hall, telling veterans about her love of the Constitution, especially “the most magical and mysterious amendment of them all,” the ninth.
Cassie Beck, a friend of Schreck, plays her on the national tour at the Guthrie. She doesn’t do anything to make herself look like 15-year-old Heidi. However, she captures the teenager’s energy and — in skittish exchanges with a Legionnaire, who counts down the remaining seconds of her speech — a sense that the Legionnaires were not entirely sympathetic to the needs of a young woman, no matter how hard they clapped when she rhapsodized about Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
The house lights stay lit for much of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” establishing that we are in a netherworld between traditional theater and something it’s difficult to put a name to. As present-day Heidi says teenage Heidi’s words, we sense her doubting her youthful certainty as she begins to reveal how the Constitution failed to protect her, particularly from the domestic abuse that recurs in her family tree.
It’s deeply personal material but part of the genius of the buoyant “Constitution” is how confidently it navigates huge tonal shifts, almost like a Nirvana song with quietly contemplative verses and loud, angry choruses. One minute, “Constitution” is peppered with quirky references to the many important things we’ve learned from “Dirty Dancing.” In the next, Heidi is taking us into a courtroom where her mother is betrayed by the one person she thought had her back.
Schreck’s play helps us understand what was going on in that courtroom, which is just one sign of “Constitution’s” generosity. It never feels like a pity party because Schreck pivots from her own story to compassion for others, including the Indigenous and Black trans women whose rights the Founding Fathers didn’t care about and that, the play argues, subsequent laws ignore.
Surrounded by photos of about 150 white men on the walls of the Legion hall set, with a white male judge sitting off to her left and speaking to an all-male audience (theatergoers are told that we represent Heidi’s Legion audience), Beck summons our imaginations. She asks us to envision a civilization governed by a document that only protects the rights of white male landowners and then points out we don’t have to imagine that civilization. Because we are living in it.
Schreck was so astonishing on stage, where you can still see her in Amazon’s filmed version, that a big question about “Constitution” was whether another actor could step into it. Beck makes the show her own. She dispenses with those worries almost immediately with her fluid, funny and poignant performance (this sounds bizarre, but even a recording of Supreme Court justices coughing as they make awkward arguments about birth control is amusing because of how specifically Beck sets it up).
Although it feels spontaneous and alive, “This play is quite carefully constructed,” Beck tells us. The construction includes the finale, when a young debater (Jocelyn Shek and Emilyn Toffler alternate in the role) joins Beck to haggle over whether the Constitution is worth preserving. The audience decides who wins the debate, but long before that decision is handed down, it’s clear who wins at “What the Constitution Means to Me”: everyone who attends this urgently moving play.
‘What the Constitution Means to Me’
Who: Written by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 1 and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 24.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Protocol: COVID vaccine or negative test required, along with masks (no bandannas or neck gaiters).
Tickets: $26-$80, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.