Review: What the Constitution Means to Me Is a Perfect Union of Past and Present

The play is positioned as a coping mechanism for Heidi Schreck and, by extension, the audience.

What the Constitution Means to Me
Photo: Joan Marcus

Thirty years ago, What the Constitution Means to Me playwright and performer Heidi Schreck toured around the United States, participating in speech competitions about the Constitution so as to raise money for college. She spoke excitedly—so much so that her voice would sometimes crack—and fancifully, describing the Constitution as a “witch’s cauldron” and the founders as “a bunch of magicians.” She idealized Amendment Nine, and William O. Douglas’s use of the word “penumbra,” and long before she understood what a negative rights constitution was, before Castle Rock v Gonzales, before Trump, she really and truly believed in the Constitution. So much so that, in these dark times, she enlisted the aid of scenic designer Rachel Hauck to reconstruct the American Legion Hall in Wentachee, Washington, returning nightly to a simpler time where there were clearer rules.

More than a memory play, then, What the Constitution Means to Me is a coping mechanism for Schreck and, by extension, the audience. It’s a way to confront the very real present traumas of America through the veil not just of a hopeful (and naïve) 15-year-old, but through her emotionally guarded younger self. This non-naturalistic recreation is designed to be a safe space, and though the production could have functioned as a series of monologues, Schreck explains that she’s brought actor Mike Iveson on stage to counterbalance all the violence in her life: “I really wanted some positive male energy up here with me.” Of course, despite some improvisational flourishes in the play, this itself is also part of the gimmick, a side-door into a meaningful conversation about the Constitution, a living document that’s grown up—or is it aged poorly?—right alongside Schreck and the audience.

Ironically, to better show that aging, there’s theatrically no difference between the two versions of Schreck: “I’m going to be 15, but I’m not going to do anything special to make myself 15. So here I am. I’m 15.” At first, director Oliver Butler seems to be helping to separate the two, calling upon moderator Mel Yonkin (Iveson) to freeze each time Schreck interrupts her own play within a play to add some modern context or clarification, and using physical cues like the ringing of a judge’s bell or a pivot back to Schreck’s speech-giving dais to “tag” young Heidi back in. But as the asides and tangents grow longer and more complicated, those lines break down, giving way to Schreck’s modern-day weariness. That sharply sunny yellow blazer she wears courtesy of costume designer Michael Krass? It is respectfully laid to rest over the back of a chair once What the Constitution Means to Me abandons the childhood conceit.

The show’s casual appearance is weighted with intent, and Schreck doesn’t need to lampshade nearly as much as she does when she asserts that “I know some of you think I’ve gone off on a tangent but I promise you I haven’t.” What, really, isn’t shaped by the Constitution? Whether Schreck speaks of the penumbral privilege accorded to her 15-year-old self’s Ninth Amendment-protected right to have an imaginary friend (because rights not enumerated cannot deny or disparage those others retained by the people), or of her present-day affection for a sock monkey, these things are all linked by the promises of our country’s urtext.

Moreover, the stream-of-consciousness-like tone of What the Constitution Means to Me and its shifting between past and present allows Schreck to potently invert the traditional way in which comedy cuts the tension of a tragedy. Here, the comic tangents and light digressions are stabbed to death by the constant and casual acknowledgments of a woman’s reality: “Neither of us were having sex yet, but we wanted to be on birth control just in case we went in a hot tub and the sperm swam up and attacked us.” You start to chuckle, perhaps, at such an absurd and childish belief, before she adds: “Or, you know, in case of a real attack.”

Just as Schreck describes the two versions of her mother that once screamed at her about the possibility of being pregnant—one a proud feminist, the other a woman terrified from personal experiences—there are two conflicting versions of the play. There’s the young and idealistic one that the play comes full circle to, as it gives over the last 15 minutes to a mock debate between Schreck and a 14-year-old student (Rosdely Ciprian). But there’s also the harried, put-upon older one that can’t ignore the reality of a world that routinely ignores constitutional protections, or keeps redefining them, as with Scalia’s quibbling over the meaning of a word like “shall” or the Constitution’s inability to outright qualify everyone as a “person.”

Ultimately, in giving control of the outcome of the show to one audience member—a representative democracy, after all, however unfair that might sometimes be—Schreck liberates audiences of their passivity, arming them with pocket copies of the Constitution. In the end, there are just two people on stage, and though they’re huddled together in the near dark of a single spotlight, you can see them, all the illusions and artifice momentarily stripped away. How you treat them depends now on what the Constitution means to you.

What the Constitution Means to Me is now playing at the Helen Hayes Theater.

Aaron Riccio

Aaron has been playing games since the late ’80s and writing about them since the early ’00s. He also obsessively writes about crossword clues at The Crossword Scholar.

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