‘Constitution’ gets a grilling in thought-provoking Florida Studio Theater play

Amy Bodnar stars in the Florida Studio Theater production of Heidi Schreck's play “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

Amy Bodnar stars in the Florida Studio Theater production of Heidi Schreck’s play “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

When she was 15 years old, Heidi Schreck banked a lot of scholarship money for her future college education by competitively speaking or debating at American Legion halls about the US Constitution and whatever personal connection she may have to the document.

Her play “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which opened Friday night at Florida Studio Theatre, is a more adult response to the sunny presentations Schreck delivered as a teenager, when she compared the Constitution to a witch’s caldron, a hot and steamy crucible . Her presentations were a drastic contrast to her main competitor’s view of the document as a patchwork quilt.

It may have taken Schreck years to fully unpack what the Constitution really meant to her, but the result is a lively, engaging and often riveting play that is part debate, part highly personal memory play and diatribe, and mostly a rumination on how a nation is run by white men forced women and people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds to face harsher treatment and injustice for generations.

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As performed by Amy Bodnar as Heidi and directed by Kate Alexander, even at its most heated, the play never seems preachy. Depending on your political point of view, you may hear some of her arguments in different ways than the people sitting next to you.

Heidi is just impressed about her views and the personal connections she discovered about an ancestor who was sold into a marriage she didn’t want, and how women and their bodies were overlooked by generations.

Bodnar initially plays that 15-year-old Heidi as bright-eyed and eager with a smile as big as theater plastered on her face. (At one point, when Bodnar gets to be himself, she admits that her face hurts from smiling so much). The script allows her to play the role without any costume or other adjustments to look younger (or older).

Deysha Nelson plays a young debater in “What the Constitution Means to Me” at Florida Studio Theatre.

Deysha Nelson plays a young debater in “What the Constitution Means to Me” at Florida Studio Theatre.

The play takes us through the young Heidi’s youthful presentations and the older playwright’s evolved views, leading to a debate with a young actress (a vibrant Deysha Nelson at the performance I saw, alternating with Marissa Gast), as they take part in an actual debate about the merits and future of the Constitution.

Should it be abolished or should it be kept, and what are the alternatives? Who would create a new version? The same white men who drafted the original? They are powerful questions that would be ripe for a high school or college civics class but also become unexpectedly theatrical as it is presented at FST. At the end, one person is chosen to speak for the entire audience about whether to keep or abolish the Constitution. The results may surprise you.

Bodnar is a spirited performer with a boundless sense of enthusiasm and who makes it seems like she’s speaking extemporaneously to the audience, whether as the young and well-practiced teenager or the more bitter and jaded grown-up version of Heidi. Her tone and attitude shift, and so does her posture as she gets deeper into the reasoning behind her adult views.

Amy Bodnar, left, and Kevin Loreque in a scene from the Florida Studio Theater production of “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

Amy Bodnar, left, and Kevin Loreque in a scene from the Florida Studio Theater production of “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

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She is also joined on stage by Kevin Loreque, who plays a stern and humorless-looking American Legion member who oversees the debates and conversations she presents. But when he removes the uniform jacket, Loreque becomes a friend who faces his own challenges with the Constitution that is delivered with a matching mix of humanity and humor.

The play is presented on a set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, that effectively represents your standard-issue American Legion Hall, with photos of past leaders, various flags and an all-important podium. Mari Taylor Floyd’s costumes work just fine in their everyday sense of reality.

But there is nothing everyday about the play itself, which entertains as it makes you think and consider what you think you know.

“What the Constitution Means to Me”

By Heidi Schreck. Directed by Kate Alexander. Reviewed Dec. 9. Florida Studio Theater Keating Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. through Feb. 26. Tickets are $25-$39. 941-366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org

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This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Florida Studio Theater play reconsiders impact of Constitution: Review