Regional Reviews: Boston
What the Constitution Means to Me
But her stirring examination of the United States Constitution has not lost its sting, even after the fever dream of the previous administration has faded (at least for now). A woman's right to choose may soon be invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Trans rights are under regular attack. GOP legislators in Florida have proposed a "Don't Say Gay" bill that would prohibit sexual orientation and gender identity from being taught in classrooms.
In the midst of these fights to define our basic human rights, What the Constitution Means to Me feels fresh and immediate. Schreck's history lesson-meets-memoir is playing in Boston as part of a national tour, with Cassie Beck performing the role that Schreck played on Broadway. Beck acknowledges that she plays a character named Heidi, a fictionalized version of the playwright, whom we see as both a 15-year-old debate champion and a present-day adult looking back on her younger self. I'm pleased to report that Beck is an ideal surrogate for Schreck, holding our attention with an understated warmth and a seemingly natural spontaneity.
This play is structured as a reenactment of the debate competitions that 15-year-old Heidi entered across the country, where she competed for (and won) prize money that paid for her college education. This young Heidi is an emotionally guarded people-pleaser, but also a self-proclaimed "zealot" for a competition where she can prove her intellectual rigor. What other teenager, even one obsessed with the Salem witch trials, would describe the dusty two-hundred-year-old prose of the U.S. Constitution as a "witch's cauldron," a hot, sweaty miracle birthed by magicians casting a spell?
Soon enough, we see Schreck cast her own spell, slowly breaking down the formal structure of the competition as grown-up Heidi's memories intrude on, and begin to overtake, her younger self's well-rehearsed remarks. The first part of each debate is to weave a personal connection between the Constitution and her life. Adult Heidi knows this is a heavy lift for a 15-year-old; what real personal connections could a teenager have to expound upon? So she starts filling in the gaps that her younger self doesn't know about yet. Next up at the debate: an extemporaneous speech on a constitutional amendment drawn from a hat; and from this, as she unpacks the Constitution's equal protection and due process clauses, Heidi can grapple with who she is and where she came from. Her lived experience, and the experiences of the women in her family going back to her great-great-grandmother allow her to see these deceptively simple clauses of the Constitution in a much more personal light than young Heidi could have realized.
From funny to deeply emotional, and back again, Schreck's sprawling oratory feels like an unburdening. Heidi becomes freer and looser as the night goes on, and she puts voice to the many things she, and her ancestors, were conditioned not to say. Women whose rights were not always recognized. These casual digressions from the debate soon become Schreck's real aim: to break down all the well-mannered discourse, and tap into the real and messy ways this founding document shapes our lives and our identities.
The effectively simple set designed by Rachel Hauck is familiar to everyone who's stepped into an American Legion hall: the comforting wood-paneled walls, the omnipresent American flag. Yet there's something eye-raising about the walls of portraits that surround Heidi: all men, legionnaires and veterans, silently observing as this woman enters their space and claims her right to share her own story.
Gabriel Marin, thankfully, provides a corrective balance as the legionnaire who oversees the high-school competition. His befuddled presence is a delight whenever Heidi veers out of bounds and plays fast and loose with the preordained rules; later, he earns a brief, and welcome, moment to step outside his character and shake up our expectations. And at the end of the night, Heidi invites a real-life high-school student debater onstage for a mock debate session, Emilyn Toffler at my performance (Jocelyn Shek alternates with Toffler). Toffler is wonderfully game, and brings a burst of energy and confidence to the play's conclusion, receiving a hearty audience reaction for a rousing proposition-opposition debate with Beck.
Yes, this performance is a call to action: everyone receives a pocket copy of the Constitution, with a missive to contact our representatives or even run for public office. But don't be mistaken, Schreck's strategy is more canny than a mere takedown of contemporary politics. In many ways, this is primarily a memory play, and the Constitution is her way in: a lens to reinvestigate her history of family trauma and the unspoken secrets passed down over generations of women. We all can map our own experiences to this document, she seems to say–the rights granted to us because of it, and others on the verge of being taken away.
Most crucially, Schreck leaves us with a feeling of hope. Every night, an audience member is chosen to vote whether to keep or abolish the U.S. Constitution, and all its imperfections, limitations, and exclusions. But regardless of the outcome, it's clear that Schreck believes in the power of raising our voices and participating in the big, messy experiment of our democracy. We still have a chance at a better future, if we keep up the fight.
What the Constitution Means to Me, presented by The Huntington, runs through March 20, 2022, at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit huntingtontheatre.org or call 617-266-0800. For more information on the tour, visit https://constitutionbroadway.com.
Cast: Cassie Beck, Gabriel Marin, Jocelyn Shek and Emilyn Toffler (alternating), and Nat DeWolf and Jessica Savage (understudies).