Review: Timeline Theatre Stages What the Constitution Means to Me With Stories of Legal Drama and Personal Pain

Heidi is 15 years old and loves the Constitution. She also is obsessed with witches and the Salem witch trials—and Patrick Swayze. Just a normal kid. The year is 1989 and we meet Heidi standing in front of the American Legion hall in Wenatchee, Washington. One reason Heidi loves the Constitution is that it enables her to compete in an American Legion oratory contest, which awards high school winners cash for college tuition. Heidi is a winner; her awards pay for four years of tuition at the University of Oregon. 

The American Legion hall is the stage set at Timeline Theatre, where Heidi Schreck’s Broadway-hit play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is now appearing. Directed by Helen Young, this production carefully recreates the original script. Beth Lacke plays Heidi, both at 15 and 30 years later. Raymond Fox plays the Legionnaire and other characters.

What the Constitution Means to Me is a dramatic and sometimes poignant look at our founding document from the perceptive of a teenager and her experienced adult self. The play addresses themes of immigration, domestic abuse, sexual assault and abortion. 

After Heidi greets the audience as herself and tells us the beginning of her story, she points out that we are now all older white men, smoking cigars—because that’s who her audience will be for the debate. White men wearing Legion hats. Then she becomes 15-year-old Heidi. With the Legionnaire timing her prepared speech, she tells us what the Constitution means to her, being careful to make a personal connection between her own life and the document. (Her title is “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution.”) For the second part of her speech, Heidi draws an amendment from a coffee can and speaks about it extemporaneously.  Heidi’s amendment is the crucial Reconstruction amendment, the 14th, section 1 with its four parts, including birthright citizenship: what it means to be American. 

Heidi (Beth Lacke) and the Legionnaire (Raymond Fox) share a moment of connection.
Photo by Brett Beiner Photography.

During the debate phase, Heidi shows her knowledge about abstract matters such as Justice William O. Douglas’ language in 1965 when he described the “penumbra” or shadowy area between darkness and light that defines a right of privacy—it isn’t directly specified in the Constitution. That was central to Douglas’ majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, providing that the state could not prohibit the use of birth control, and then later in Justice Harry Blackmun’s 1973 majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, guaranteeing abortion rights—now overturned by the recent Dobbs decision.

Midway through the performance, Heidi leaves her American Legion orator self to become the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of women who suffered abuse and violence from their husbands throughout the decades; the men were rarely punished for their crimes. It was considered appropriate for a husband to demand obedience and to inflict physical punishment on his wife. Her great-grandmother, a “catalog bride” from Germany, died in a mental hospital of “melancholia” at the age of 36. Heidi also tells some of her personal story, such as her pregnancy while in college and her decision to have an abortion.

The Legionnaire doffs his Legionnaire hat and jacket and becomes Heidi’s friend, Danny. He tells his own story, which Heidi watches sympathetically; he talks about childhood experiences, being vulnerable, being bullied for being “soft,” and growing up to be an actor.

Then comes the current debate, in which the question is whether to keep or abolish the US Constitution. (Pocket copies of the Constitution, courtesy of the ACLU, are handed out to all at this point.) Who speaks for which side is decided by a coin toss. Heidi speaks for the “keep” side while a high school actor speaks for “abolish.” Sophie Ackerman, a freshman at Lane Tech High School, was a lively foil to Heidi on the night I saw the play; she alternates with Makalah Simpson, a 2023 graduate of Thornton Fractional South High School.

The debate ends without a decision but, as Heidi warned us at the beginning, one audience member will be asked to vote for the entire audience (no longer older white men) on whether to keep or abolish the Constitution. I saw Sophie looking directly at me and I had a feeling she was going to pick me to respond. And that’s what happened. Probably because I was sitting at the end of the second row—or maybe it was my purple hair. As a longtime ACLU member, I voted firmly to keep the Constitution because I fear the loss of the keystone First and Fourteenth Amendments in a contemporary Constitutional convention. (An Article Five movement is taking place in the US right now; 28 states have already passed a call for a new Constitutional Convention and bills are being introduced in more legislatures every day.) 

Heidi (Beth Lacke), and the Debater (Sophie Ackerman, at alternating performances) share personal reflections. Photo by Brett Beiner Photography.

The debate and my chance to participate were entertaining. But theatrically, the play wanders in the middle. The long detours into the stories of Heidi’s abortion and the abused women in her life—plus Danny’s monologue—take time away from the Constitutional drama in a way I didn’t notice when I saw this play before.

Young’s direction is solid, if stolid; speeding up the pacing during those detours would sustain the excitement. Beth Lacke’s performance as Heidi is smart and charming. The set design by Jessica Kuehnau Wardell is a successful clone of a typical small town Legion hall. Sensitive lighting design is by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent and sound by Forrest Gregor. Megan E. Pirtle is responsible for costume design.

After an off-Broadway run, What the Constitution Means to Me premiered on Broadway in March 2019 with Schreck playing the leading role. The play was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a Tony for best play. Its awards include the Lucille Lortel Awards, Obies, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League.

Broadway in Chicago staged the play here in March 2020 at the Broadway Playhouse. A recorded version was created to stream on Prime Video, where it’s still available to Prime subscribers. 

What the Constitution Means to Me continues at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., through July 2. Running time is about 100 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $52-$67 for performances Thursday-Sunday and some Wednesdays. Masks are required for some performances, optional for others. See Timeline‘s health and safety page

Special Fundraiser Performance for Planned Parenthood

A fundraiser performance for Planned Parenthood of Illinois will be Saturday, June 17, at 8pm. The performance will be followed by a post-show discussion with Cristina Villarreal, chief external affairs officer, Planned Parenthood of Illinois (PPIL). A special block of $75 tickets will be sold for this performance as a fundraiser for PPIL; a portion of each fundraiser ticket sold will support sexual and reproductive health care across Illinois. Tickets to PPIL Night go on sale Wednesday, June 7, at 10am. 

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.