Photo by RyLo Media Design, Ryan C. Loyd

This production was scheduled March 29-April 14, 2024.

Regardless of your political persuasion, you will be challenged by the Obie Award-winning play (actually, “almost-one-woman-show” is a more apt description) now taking center stage at SLO REP.

What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck is aggravating, provocative, revealing, even revelatory. And local theatre jack-of-all-trades Suzy Newman, star of this almost-one-woman-show, is nothing short of amazing in shouldering the burden of a continuous two-hour presence onstage, talking almost the whole time directly to the audience.

Newman effortlessly embodies the persona Schreck created on Broadway in 2019, effectively becoming our teacher, our guide, to not just the language of the U.S. Constitution, but to the founding fathers (who of course were all male and all white, much like the portraits of Legionnaires that fill the wall of the American Legion hall that comprises the simple but effective set designed by Dave Linfield).

Much of the play is a lesson in history, made palatable by the connections Schreck makes between the then and the now, along with brief, audible excerpts of Supreme Court debates that make you want to laugh, then cry, if not cringe in embarrassment for their absurdity.

That Newman and her two teaching assistants—a perfect Mike Mesker as a Legionnaire and an equally perfect Jamie Collins as a debater—keep this lesson entertaining and even beguiling is a credit to their acting skills as well as the steady hand of director Kevin Harris, who doesn’t let things get out of hand. Harris has reined in what could easily have been a tendency for the actors to roll their eyes or elbow the audience at some of the script’s pointed barbs. Instead they play it straight and let audience members make what they will of the facts presented.

And of facts there are aplenty. From the 14th Amendment to the Civil Rights Movement to the idea of negative and positive rights, it is guaranteed that you will learn something you didn’t know before.

The show is divided into two acts—the first an hour and a half, the second (and weakest) a short 30 minutes. The second half, a mock debate about whether the Constitution should be abolished or simply amended, feels tacked on by the playwright and descends somewhat into a melodramatic give-and-take that Schreck might have trusted her audiences to continue themselves after the show, given all the information presented in the first act.

You will come away from What the Constitution Means to Me with new insight, an appreciation for a local theatre company that doesn’t shy away from important and provocative material, and a copy of a pocket Constitution of the United States thanks to the League of Women Voters SLO County.

What a gift to the community.

:: Charlotte Alexander