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Broadway Reviews

What the Constitution Means to Me

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 31, 2019

What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck. 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. Cast: Heidi Schreck, Rosdely Ciprian, and Mike Iveson.
Theatre: The Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Heidi Schreck
Photo by Joan Marcus

Unless you happen to be intimately knowledgeable about playwright/performer Heidi Schreck's family history, you may be uncertain how to take her play What the Constitution Means to Me, opening tonight at the Helen Hayes Theater. Is it, as the title suggests, a personal rumination on the U. S. Constitution, a kind of extended TED Talk by a voracious student of our foundational document of governance? Or is it a work of creative fiction, in which Heidi Schreck plays a sometimes calmly focused, sometimes discombobulated, sometimes incensed character called Heidi Schreck?

However you look at it, the play, which has transferred to Broadway after a well-received Off Broadway run last fall, is quite a hodgepodge: part history lesson, part political analysis, part debate, part personal story, part feminist screed, and part meltdown. There is, in short, a lot going on, and it's not always easy to take, especially during those times when you may feel as though you are being lectured at, as was possibly the case with the man in the center section of the orchestra who got up and walked out in the middle of the 100-minute intermissionless performance that I attended.

Ms. Schreck does get quite riled up at times, especially when she deconstructs the experiences of her maternal forebears and reconstructs them through a contemporary feminist lens. There is her great-great grandmother, whom, she says, was "purchased for 75 dollars when my great-great grandfather ordered her from the Matrimonial Times" and died at the age of 36 in a mental hospital; her grandmother, who lived in an abusive relationship with her second husband; and her mother, who grew up in that household. The empathy with which she recounts these credible stories is so encompassing, you fear for her psychological well-being, especially in light of the fact that she revisits the same set of traumatic experiences with the same depth of anguish every night, the way a PTSD-sufferer might experience flashbacks.

By now, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the Constitution, a question Ms. Schreck fully anticipates. "I know some of you think I've gone off on a tangent," she says at one point while recounting an emotionally-charged story about her beloved sock monkey, "but I promise you I haven't. This show is actually quite carefully constructed." And that's important to remember. If she riffs a bit on the script that she herself composed, she never actually wanders far from that blueprint, with the support of director Oliver Butler. It's just that she connects with the audience with so much authenticity, it's sometimes easy to forget she's not making things up on the spot. Call it scripted spontaneity.

Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson, and Heidi Schreck
Photo by Joan Marcus

The most straightforward section of the play takes us back to when Ms. Schreck was a Wenatchee, Washington high school student who was intrigued by the Constitution. She takes on the persona of her 15-year-old self when she confidently made the rounds of various American Legion halls around the country, a fanciful version of which is captured in Rachel Hauck's set design. At these events, one of which she reconstructs with the aid of Mike Iverson playing the moderator, she participated in competitions about the content of the Constitution and its Amendments, and won frequently enough to finance her college education.

We actually do learn some interesting points about the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments before Ms. Schreck returns to her adult self and shares the stories about the women in her family. It is then that the play truly becomes what its title promises, an exegesis on what the Constitution means to her, a document created by and generally subject to the interpretation of white men. This conceptualization leads, finally, to a debate in which she is pitted against an actual New York high school student (Rosdely Ciprian at the performance I attended, with Thursday Williams doing the honors at others). The debate question asks whether the Constitution is so flawed that it ought to be replaced altogether, or whether it should remain in place, open to interpretation, Supreme Court precedent, and the Amendment process, such as the unpaid promissory that is the as yet unpassed Equal Rights Amendment.

While Ms. Schreck presents herself as audience friendly, even disarmingly ingratiating, there is never a doubt where she stands on issues of social justice. Minorities, gays, immigrants, and others have a place at her table, but it is women's rights that dominate the conversation, representing a viewpoint that lies emphatically to the left of center on the political spectrum. Even the debate at the end takes place within that mindset, so that if you are looking for a competing perspective, you'll have to take it up at your next Thanksgiving family get-together.

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