We are all aware of the Milwaukee Repertory’s strength on their main stage with big cast dramas and popular musicals. But I tend to look forward to their offerings in the black box Stiemke Studio hidden away under the grand staircase. The Stiemke brings us edgy dramas, divine comedies, serious contemporary content, and alternative forms of presentation. The Rep’s current Stiemke offering, What the Constitution Means to Me, lives at the nexus of all of those strengths.
Our protagonist, Heidi, steps out front and introduces herself and starts to present us with the backstory of the play. As a teenager she was driven to excel at speaking at American Legion Halls on the US Constitution as part of their oratorical contest in order to win college scholarships. This is a bit autobiographical and the original role was played by Heidi Schreck in many early productions of the play.
Here in Milwaukee, Heidi is played by Jessie Fisher who owns the role and this viewer is completely convinced that Fisher is Heidi and actually lived these experiences. And Fisher moves smoothly from the fifteen year old Heidi to the adult Heidi and brings out all of the questioning and doubts that life presents and how our society and the Constitution have helped or hindered Americans over the centuries.
In opposition to Heidi early on is a strict and seemingly no-nonsense legionnaire played by Will Mobley. The legionnaire is responsible for timing the contestants and keeping them on track and laying out the ground rules for the contestants and the audience. As the story continues, Heidi again breaks theater tradition and introduces the legionnaire as her long time friend Danny who she has recruited to play the part since she trusts him.
Late in the play, the scene shifts from play and exposition to a debate on wither the United States should retain or replace the US Constitution. This requires Danny to reprise his role as timekeeper and rule keeper for the debate. And it also requires a third character, the debater. This role is filled in rotation by three actors from First Stage’s training programs: Maria (Rose) Campbell, Hazel Dye, and Maya O’Day-Biddle. The evening performance I attended was graced with an amazing performance by Rose Campbell.
Director Laura Braza scores some gold stars here for making this play run so incredibly smoothly and incredibly realistically…it is hard to tell that we aren’t listening to a friend or neighbor relate their life experience.
So, besides the drama and humor surrounding the events in the play, there is a fair amount of history and discussion on culture and politics. And you will learn about any number of prominent Americans and hear snippets of their own speeches and commentary, and you will get some in-depth analysis of the 9th, 13th, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.
The play runs without intermission and the Rep says about an hour and forty minutes. The night I was there, I think it was closer to two hours. It continues at the Stiemke through March 17, 2024 and you can find ticket information and more details here.
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