The layered and strategic structure underpinning Heidi Schreck’s “What The Constitution Means To Me” could easily be underestimated. That is because the wacky and warm Schreck, who describes herself as “psychotically polite,” welcomes us enthusiastically to her world. It takes a little time to realize that the cheerful, amusing banter only seems casual. Beneath the bonhomie and Schreck’s yellow-blazered, endearing persona, serious points are being made.
As a teenager, Schreck — the actor and writer of this almost-solo performance — traveled the country to compete in constitutional debates sponsored by the American Legion. Contestants vying for scholarship funds were required to discuss the connection they felt to the country’s founding document, and to prove its singularity by demonstrating how it affected their own lives. Schreck, infused with the idealism of youth, and a self-professed zealot where the virtues of the framers were concerned, prevailed to the extent that she paid for her college education entirely through her persuasive efforts.
In search of the reason why she was so enamored with the document, Schreck began working on a memoir version of “Constitution” during a Clubbed Thumb summer festival in 2017. With new content and characters added, the show enjoyed a critically praised, sold-out run at New York Theater Workshop in the fall. The off-Broadway run extended into a winter transfer to the Greenwich House theater. And now that it has made it to the Helen Hayes Theater, it is a hopeful sign for the American theater that a boundary-pushing, intellectually and politically charged piece such as “Constitution” is considered a good bet for Broadway audiences.
While conjuring the scenes of her debate triumphs three decades later, Schreck acknowledges that her memory is unreliable. So she has designer Rachel Hauck give us an atmospheric approximation of a Legion Hall sans door, with walls lined by photographs of “old white men” selected by Schreck as though she were creating a crime drawing composite. Though the original, prize-winning speech is lost, Schreck plans to reconstitute it and determine what values endure. (And before Schreck reverts to her 15-year-old self, she exacts a promise from the audience to stand-in for the cigar-smoking, old white men who were her audiences in her youth.)
Reviving the second-wave feminism mantra that “the personal is political,” Schreck overcomes the reticence she harbored in her teens to revealing too much of her own history. She begins by sharing the decision in her twenties to have an abortion and eventually wades into the multi-generational legacy of domestic violence and mental illness afflicting the women in her family, for whom society provided no sanctuary. While this may read like a recipe for a dispiriting evening, Schreck’s self-deprecating comedy and acute delivery is so spot-on that you find yourself laughing for much of the evening. In fact, you will laugh until it hurts, which I suspect is exactly the intention. Schreck knows that anger and breast-beating can be a turnoff, but a funny line seduces as the zingers linger in the mind.
As a playwright, Schreck’s ability to mix evocative childhood memories with disquieting statistics is impressive. For example, empathy for a grandmother that endured 14 years of abuse enlarges seamlessly to engage broader concern for the plight of the many victims of domestic violence around the country.
And as an actor portraying a 15-year-old, Schreck appears to emotionally absorb the disturbing information she offered as though hearing it for the first time. Then, when the teenage version of Schreck gives way to the rule-breaking and questioning mature woman we see before us, her acting chops are such that we feel genuine commiseration for her loss of innocence. To both write and inhabit autobiographical material of this kind without a trace of self-indulgence is no small achievement.
That is, though Schreck credits the experience of debate competition as one that affirmed her own right at a formative time to both speak and to be heard, her adult reckoning with the constitution diminishes her early idealism. Awareness dawns that as a woman, she is still excluded from the scope of protections and human rights afforded only selectively by the founding document. People of color and indigenous Americans are similarly excluded. Later amendments have mitigated only so much. She must now tell a different story.
With penetrating effectiveness the production justifies Schreck’s evolving disenchantment by playing recorded excerpts from significant Supreme Court decisions impacting women, during a period when the justices were almost exclusively male. We listen as people without relevant experience, or apparently any compassion to inform their deliberations, engage in semantic quibbling. The result is exclusionary injustice that is enshrined for decades to come. The experience is chilling. This is especially true because the show acts as a sort of Rorschach test for our responses to the current political climate. One might respond differently to the material depending on the day’s news.
Throughout the play, Shreck is supported on stage by the versatile Mike Iveson (all actors use their real names) whose characterizations range from traveling debate coach, to a hilarious turn as a pompous Legion-appointed judge and moderator, to the all-purpose male whose responsibility it is to key into the arguments rebounding across the stage. At one telling point, stage light spills onto the spectators and Iveson breaks character to share his own real-life experience as a nerdy, gay man attempting to both understand and escape from a masculinity he finds toxic, thereby revealing a touching vulnerability. This is acting, but also not, and it provides apposite commentary to Schreck’s confessions. (The sensitive lighting design that emphasizes key transitions and helps minimize the boundaries between the audience and the actors is by Jen Schriever.)
Fittingly, the show ends with a sort of coda in which a young debate champion who is a current New York public school student comes on stage. (At the performance I attended the enchantingly precocious Rosdely Ciprian played the role. Thursday Williams appears at certain performances.) The next generation was drafted to face off with Schreck over whether the U.S. constitution should be abolished and drafted anew, or retained in its imperfection. In the end, the audience gets to vote on the winner. For my part, I would have been happy to see either side emerge victorious simply because watching reasonable, informed exchange between two people holding deeply held divergent views is absent from most of our public forums.
This play is truly a hybrid form, with elements of performance art, documentary theater and contemporary stand-up. While some of the moments of audience interaction are likely spontaneous, one has the sense that script and action are precisely realized, which is a credit to director Oliver Butler’s sure hand.
At one point in the action, Schreck discusses what she terms “covert resistance,” in the form of pleasing behavior, copious smiling and avoiding conflict, as a means of coping with a hostile world. She suggests that the women who function in this way may well be justified in doing so, because such adaptive behavior increases their chances of survival.
In turn, by creating a performance redolent with wit, absorbing storytelling and infectious energy, we are so beguiled that when beseeched to protect our democracy by committing anew to its ideals, we stand ready, imperfect as it may be.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on March 31, 2019.
Creative: Written by Heidi Schreck; Additional Material: Danny Wolohan; Directed by Oliver Butler; Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by Sinan Refik Zafar.
Producers: Diana DiMenna, Aaron Glick, Matt Ross, Madeleine Foster Bersin, Myla Lerner/Jon Bierman, Jenna Segal/Catherine Markowitz, Jana Shea/Maley-Stolbun-Sussman, Rebecca Gold/Jose Antonio Vargas, Level Forward, Cornice Productions, Cody Lassen & Associates, Kate Lear, Clubbed Thumb, True Love Productions and New York Theatre Workshop; Associate Producer: SL Theatricals and Daniel Rakowski.
Cast: Heidi Schreck, Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson, Thursday Williams.