Playwright Heidi Schreck and actress Cassie Beck look so much alike — tall, blond, German — that it isn’t uncommon for the two friends to get mistaken for one another.
“If we’re walking around New York and someone compliments me on one of her shows or she gets a compliment from one of my shows, we just text each other and say, ‘I just took your compliment and said thank you very much,'” said Beck with a laugh, speaking by phone from New York.
In fact, it’s probably a good thing that the two look alike now that Beck has taken over the lead role of Schreck’s Pulitzer Prize finalist play, “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Arriving Tuesday at the Fisher Theatre and running through Jan. 2, the show is a very personal but funny and poignant look at Schreck’s own life and how America’s most important document has impacted it.
Beck, who is only the second person beside Schreck to play the lead actor, said it was daunting to take over such a personal role. But she felt honored at the same time.
“I respect Heidi so much, her as an artist,” said Beck, who has been on numerous TV shows, including “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “The Humans” on Broadway. “I know the kind of personal toll she went through to create this piece. It’s deep and raw and very personal. And I loved it when I saw it at New York Theatre Workshop. When the role first came around to me, I was like, ‘No way. I’m not touching that. It’s perfection as it is.’ But then I said let me read it. When I saw it in black in white, it’s real testament to her as a writer…I started to be able to see myself doing it.”
Schreck, now a busy mom of twin 19-month-old daughters, never envisioned her play would go as far as it has. She started writing it a decade ago but the idea actually came to her nearly 20 years ago. It’s based on her experiences as a teen, traveling to American Legion halls across the country to enter oration contests about how the Constitution has impacted her own life, something she actually did, winning scholarship money for college.
“I thought this idea was so offbeat and personal that it would have kind of a small life, which I was excited for,” remembers Schreck.
She debuted it at a small New York theater but then it took off, going off-Broadway and then Broadway before the national tour launched (it paused for COVID but resumed in September). It was nominated for a Tony Award in 2019 and big names such as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have seen it. Ginsburg sent Schreck a few notes on it afterward.
And given today’s divisive political climate — Schreck’s interview with The Detroit News was on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a Mississippi abortion law, potentially deciding the fate Roe v. Wade — it continues to be very relevant.
“It’s funny because I actually first performed a version of it while Obama was president and people were very responsive even then,” Schreck said. “I think something about the connection of the personal stories to the investigation of the 14th amendment, I think people didn’t expect it to be as emotional as it was.”
The play doesn’t shy away from difficult experiences in Schreck’s own life and family history, including abortion, domestic violence and sexual assault. Schreck said she never expected to share such personal experiences with “quite so many people,” but felt like she had to if she was really going to talk about how her life was shaped by the Constitution. Still, she admits she felt scared at first.
“But honestly I was kind of led by the play itself,” she said. “I didn’t start with the idea of ‘Oh, I’m going to tell these stories about my family.’ I really started with the idea of I’m going to tell the story of being a 15-year-old and doing these contests.”
Beck said the reality is the character of Heidi is in every woman.
“It demonstrates for how many of us, this is story is unfortunately similar and true,” she said.
The response to the play, meanwhile, has been really positive as audience members have shared their own experiences or how the stories are meaningful to them, said Schreck.
“I’ve found myself feeling very connected to a lot of people which is really nice,” said Schreck.
Ultimately, Schreck said she hopes that for those who see “What the Constitution Means to Me,” it’s “galvanizing” with hope and energy to examine what the Constitution means in their own lives.
“For me, the show is about creating a space for people to be together and process and have feelings about everything that’s going on in our country today,” she said. “And maybe to think back about the origins of some of the things that are going on today.”
‘What the Constitution Means to Me’
Tuesday through Jan. 2 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 E. Grand Boulevard, Detroit
Tickets start at $25.
Go ticketmaster.com or call (800) 982-2787.