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What the Constitution Means to Me

Theatre Review by David Hurst - October 2, 2018

Thursday Williams, Mike Iveson, Heidi Schreck
Photo by Joan Marcus

As a 15-year old student growing up in Wenatchee, Washington, not even a precociously talented girl like Heidi Schreck could have imagined that, thirty years later, she'd be starring in a self-penned, off-Broadway play at the exact moment our country's current political events — which have a direct cause and effect relationship to her autobiographical story — would spin wildly out of control with the entire country watching. But that's exactly what's happened and I suspect no one is more surprised by the confluence of timing for What the Constitution Means to Me than actor and playwright Schreck. More a memoir than an actual play, What the Constitution Means to Me is a thrilling performance piece; as provocative as it is political. To point out its timeliness with the ongoing Supreme Court confirmation debacle involving claims of sexual abuse saturating our 24-hour news cycles would be superfluous.

A two-time Obie winner, Schrek put herself through college with money she earned from the American Legion by winning speech and debate competitions around the country about the U.S. Constitution. About ten years ago, she decided to revisit the speeches she gave and to examine her relationship to our treasured document, both as a young girl and as an adult woman. With the support of groups like True Love Productions (2012) and Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks Festival (2017), the piece grew into a full-fledged evening that had its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep this past spring.

Economically set in a replica of an American Legion hall courtesy of Scenic Designer Rachael Hauck, with simply but effective illumination by Lighting Designer Jen Schriever, Schreck takes herself back in time to her 15-year old self in What the Constitution Means to Me. She makes for a charming narrator who's as self-deprecating as she is hilariously informative. Downtown acting stalwart, Mike Iveson, portrays the American Legion Hall moderator who's overseeing the debate Schreck is recreating, but Schreck can't help traveling back and forth between her schoolgirl innocence and her adult consciousness in telling her story. It seems in those debates the high school competitors were supposed to make a point about how the Constitution affected their life directly. Naturally, Schreck's viewpoint as a grown woman is substantially different than her reflections as a young girl, and this is crux of her play.

What Schreck goes on to reveal in her explanation of how her viewpoint on the Constitution has matured involves her family's dark history of spousal abuse, sexual domination, incest and lying, all of which Schreck neatly and tidily connects to the rights not afforded to women in our famously flawed Constitution. It's a searing and compelling argument, told to us in a non-threatening matter-of-factness that's stunning for its abundance of clarity and reason. Iveson also contributes a personal story of his own before the show concludes with a real debate between a real-life, high school student, Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams alternate in the role, and Schreck, arguing the merits of whether the Constitution should be thrown out and rewritten. It's a passionate, eye-opening conclusion to Schreck's story and makes her point that a living, breathing document intended to serve the needs of all citizens, not just rich, white men, is a document we need to tend regularly and amend frequently. It is a conversation we should all welcome and in which we must all participate.

What the Constitution Means to Me
Through October 28
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, between Bowery and 2nd Avenue
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