REVIEW: Heidi Schreck’s stunning and poignant “What the Constitution Means to Me”
As a teenager, Obie-winning actor and playwright Heidi Schreck (“I Love Dick”, “Grand Concourse”) traveled from her hometown of Wenatchee, Washington to give speeches about the United States Constitution for prize money at American Legion-run competitions across the country.
Her standard stump speech, “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution”, combined her adolescent love for witches, theatre, and Patrick Swayze, and successfully earned enough winnings to pay for her entire college education.
In Ms. Schreck’s stunning and poignant, mostly one-woman play “What the Constitution Means to Me”, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village (following a premiere at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival in 2017), she recounts that formative experience of wrestling with the constitution as a sprightly 15 year-old-girl graced with acne and braces speaking in smoke-filled halls, mostly full of old men, through the personal lens of her adult self, the women in her family—both present and past—and the bitterly divided nation it serves.
Part civics lesson, part memoir—at once bittersweet and beautiful—Ms. Schreck cuts through the daily din of our fractured politics to speak directly about the one thing that binds all Americans together, our common foundational touchstone: the United States Constitution. In so doing, she weaves a heartbreaking and humorous account of her relationship with her own citizenship—an oft overlooked, but universal phenomenon.
I found the experience of hearing her story profoundly moving and invigorating. Ms. Schreck is nothing short of brilliant in her craft and delivery, as directed by Oliver Butler (“The Light Years”) alongside timekeeper/”positive male energy” Mike Iveson and, alternately, New York City high school students Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams.
But for her recitation of her prepared oration—that aforementioned argument involving a “sizzling” crucible—the balance of the evening feels freshly extemporaneous, deeply personal, and remarkably keyed to the moment.
It ends with a parliamentary-style debate between Ms. Schreck and one of those high school students over the question: “should the constitution be abolished?”. The winner is decided by an audience member picked at random—pocket constitutions from the ACLU passed out as guides and takeaway tokens.
An immutable fact of live performance is that it happens at a specific time in a specific place. Context, in theatre, is everything. Earlier in the day I saw “What the Constitution Means to Me”, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee had voted to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the full Senate with the proviso of a delay for an undefined FBI investigation into the flood of damning allegations of sexual assault and perjury made against him.
The day before, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh had testified. That process was painful, brutal, frustrating, infuriating, and ultimately depressing. And it provided the context upon which I entered New York Theatre Workshop for Ms. Schreck’s performance, both bitter and scared about the coming inflection point in the court’s ideological bend—one which threatens to upend precious rights and opportunities for women, immigrants, workers, LGBTQ people, people of color, and other marginalized groups in America.
While speaking about the lesser known and rarely invoked 9th Amendment, which reserves all unenumerated rights to the people, Ms. Schreck says it acknowledges an abiding belief among the Founders that “who are now is not what we might become”—a statement that, as an active believer in the living constitution who prizes analysis of purpose and consequence over so-called “textualism”, rocked me to tears.
The 9th Amendment is one of several that were cited by Justice William O. Douglas in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the landmark decision that acknowledged, for the first time, a constitutional right to privacy found in the “penumbras” formed by “emanations” from specific, textual guarantees that “help give them life and substance”. That case was about contraception, and laid the groundwork for Roe v. Wade (1973).
Because the play is about Ms. Schreck’s relationship with the constitution, it naturally delves into the way it has regulated women’s bodies over time, from abortion rights to the Violence Against Women Act, and the “miraculous” promise of the Equal Rights Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Talking candidly of the violence and rape inflicted upon her, her mother, and her great-great grandmother, a “mail order bride” from Germany who died of “melancholia”, she painfully and earnestly asks: “what does it mean if the constitution can’t protect us from violence from men?” She reminds the audience that three women are killed in America every day due to domestic partner violence. One out of every three women will be sexually assaulted. One out of every four raped.
That violence is so ubiquitous as to be invisible. But as Dr. Ford’s brave testimony, like Anita Hill’s before her, showed the nation: it is real. On the night I attended, high school student Thursday Williams argued not to abolish the constitution, but rather to “overthrow the men who abuse it”. If she is the future, it is one I welcome, if only we can survive the present.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” will no doubt challenge you to think critically about what it means to you, an exercise that is always relevant, and in this moment, never more important.
Bottom Line: Part civics lesson, part memoir—at once bittersweet and beautiful— Heidi Schreck’s mostly one-woman play “What the Constitution Means to Me” at New York Theatre Workshop recounts her formative experience of wrestling with the constitution’s meaning as a teenager through the lens of her adult self, the women in her family, and the bitterly divided nation it serves. Heartbreaking, humorous, brilliant, and profoundly important, this is a must-see event of the fall season.
“What the Constitution Means to Me”
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
New York, NY 10003
Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: September 30, 2018
Final Performance: extended to November 4, 2018