What the Constitution Means to Me opened last night at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Bellingham, WA. Directed by Mark Kuntz, this show is the last of the Fairhaven Summer Repertory Theatre’s trifecta. Like its companion shows, WTCMTM asks difficult but necessary questions – namely, despite its beauty, how effective is our country’s most fundamental document? As Heidi (Gabbi Gilbride) switches between her chipper 15-year-old self and her current, adult self, she builds a tale of familial and national trauma about the female experience in this country. Unlike its companion shows, I felt this one presented more of a mixed bag. While it offers a compelling personal story that reflects on real issues in our society, its message was muddled in adapting the original script to this specific production.
Originally written and performed by Heidi Schrek in 2017, this one-woman show rocked Broadway’s stage as its moving discussion of women’s rights, domestic abuse, and immigration earned it a 73rd Tony nomination and a finalist spot for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. At the start, Heidi acts out the Constitutional debates she competed in at age fifteen to pay for college, frequently interrupting her younger self to talk about her great-grandmother, a woman who died of melancholia in her mid-thirties. A legionnaire (Adam St. John) is present to serve as a debate moderator and to provide some “positive male energy.” Praising the Constitution turns into a revelation of its flaws as Heidi combines her personal story with shocking statistics that highlight our country’s gender inequality.
Overall, Gilbride makes a convincing Heidi. Charming and passionate, she steps into Heidi’s shoes with ease. Since Schrek wrote and performed the original script, Heidi feels more like a real person and less like a character. Though this story may not be Gilbride’s, the casual way she addresses the audience blurs the lines between Heidi and herself. Unfortunately, it was difficult to tell precisely when Gilbride switches between her younger and current self. When Heidi takes off her jacket and says “going forward, it’s just going to be me”, I was confused, as there wasn’t much difference between younger and older Heidi. The most gripping part of the play is the “just older Heidi” section, where the passion and outrage at injustice springs forward. There, I felt the play’s message was at its strongest.
The second part of the show features a live debate between Gilbride (as herself, not Heidi) and a local high school debater, Avery Horton. In it, they debate whether to keep or abolish the US Constitution. This side of the show is primarily unscripted, and part of what makes WTCMTM so unique – each performance is different. However, while the debate is meant to establish the controversial complexity behind the Constitution, the message fell flat. Though fun, it was informal, disjointed, and lacked the passion present in the first part of the show. Having watched the original production, I can say that it works well when both debaters are familiar with competitional debate. Though I don’t know Gilbride’s history, she appeared less prepared than Horton, who has experience in high school debate. Without both parties able to effectively argue either side, the competition is lackluster. Likewise, the get-to-know-you questions at the end between Gilbride and Horton felt irrelevant to the show’s purpose – I wish this part had been scripted.
However, these faults are in part due to the risks of performing this script. Initially designed for Schrek, familiar with Constitutional debate, the competition has a higher chance of succeeding with the original actor. Also, improvisational theatre always comes with uncertainty. Some shows can be successes, and some can be flops, and it just depends on which day you go. As WTCMTM has a month more of performances, I hope the debaters will gain confidence as the show continues.
All of this said, WTCMTM is a unique play with an important message. I recommend you see this show, especially if you haven’t seen it before. One warning – though the program lists the approximate run time as 90 minutes, it’s closer to two hours with intermission. Be prepared for that, as well as for a thought-provoking, deeply relevant performance.
What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schrek. Fairhaven Repertory Theatre, Firehouse Performing Arts Center, 1314 Harris Ave, Bellingham, WA 98225. Various dates June 29th – July 23rd, 7:30pm or Sun 5pm.
Info: https://www.bellinghamtheatreworks.org/current-season or (360) 209-5599. Lot and street parking available.