theater review

What the Constitution Means to Me Is Personal, Political, and Uncannily Timed

Heidi Schreck, creator and star of What the Constitution Means to Me. Photo: Joan Marcus

“Thank you all so much for being here!” Heidi Schreck beamed, effervescent in a sunny yellow blazer, as she made her entrance at the start of What the Constitution Means to Me. Then she kept smiling, but something flickered behind her eyes as she added, “Especially tonight.” It was Thursday, the day of the Kavanaugh hearings. In the tiny pause that Schreck let hang in the air before she took a breath and moved forward, my thoughts plunged through the events of the preceding twelve hours like a lead weight dropped into a sinkhole. The world was in the room with us — her courage, his floundering spinelessness, the dead-eyed indifference of a wall of men with no recognizable consciences to appeal to, no interest in uncovering truth, no intentions beyond shoring up the foundations of their own power.

Schreck began to speak again. Her eyes flashed back into brightness and, still smiling, she began to tell us about how, when she was 15, she gave speeches about the U.S. Constitution in American Legion Hall rhetoric competitions to win money to pay for college — and I thought back to the first time I heard her tell this story. It was the summer of 2017, just a block away from her show’s current home at New York Theater Workshop, in the shoebox-sized Wild Project space as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival. The world, I thought, had been in that little room then, too. Schreck has created a stunning, porous piece of theater — a brilliantly crafted show, harrowing and funny and humane, that accesses the political through the deeply personal. By telling us about herself — about her relationship to a two-century-old document and about the history of the women in her family — Schreck shows us ourselves, our country, our own shared history. What the Constitution Means to Me isn’t political commentary, which moves one way and often tells us what we already know. Rather, it’s a masterful act of storytelling, blending unflinching vulnerability, nimble humor, and acute analysis to inspire revelation. It’s a play that expands beyond itself, offering an immensely powerful model for modern civic theater.

“This isn’t … it’s not a naturalistic representation,” Schreck says as she looks up at the set that surrounds her. “I got my friend Rachel to help me reconstruct it from memory. It’s like one of those crime victim drawings.” Schreck stands in a kind of oversized diorama box, an American Legion Hall of the mind, meticulously conjured by the set designer Rachel Hauck. You can almost smell the smoke suffusing the paneled walls and green wall-to-wall carpet. “[I] performed these speeches to audiences of older — mostly white — men,” says Schreck, “and in my memory, they were all smoking cigars.” She pauses and adds guilelessly, “Although, in retrospect, I think that can’t be true.” She asks politely if we, the audience, would “be the men” for her as she attempts to remember and reenact her 15-year-old self. There’s a lacquered wooden podium flanked by a Legion flag and the Stars and Stripes to help her get in the zone, along with rows upon rows of veteran portraits lining the walls: dozens of men in uniform staring down at her. That’s us. The ones who get to decide whether a 15-year-old girl deserves our generous scholarship funds.

We’re standing in for the men, but we’ve got a representative onstage with Schreck in the person of Mike Iveson, standing wide-legged in schlubby, overlong pleated pants and navy sport coat, Legionnaire cap and chunky 1970s glasses (the simple, effective costumes are by Michael Krass). Iveson serves as the referee in a game whose single player grows increasingly unable to abide by the rules — of which there are many. First Schreck, as her 15-year-old self, must give a prepared speech of no more than seven minutes, demonstrating “her understanding of the Constitution, and [drawing] a personal connection between [her own life] and this great document.” Then she must draw an amendment from a jar and speak extemporaneously about it, with only two minutes per clause to tell us everything she knows. Schreck is a little nervous about the personal part of things: “I lost a couple of times,” she admits, to “a girl named Becky Lee Dobbins from Lawrence, Kansas, [who was] a genius at getting really personal with her anecdotes.” Becky — who cleaned up with her speech about “how the Constitution was like a patchwork quilt,” a somewhat less aggressive and witchy central metaphor than Schreck’s, which envisioned the Constitution as “a crucible” of “sizzling and steamy conflict” — apparently loved to tell stories about her pioneer grandmother, much to the judges’ approval. “That part was harder for me,” Schreck admits, that same troubled something flickering behind her eyes again. “I didn’t want to talk about my grandmother.”

Before What the Constitution Means to Me is over, we’ll hear the story of Schreck’s grandmother — and stories of her mother and of her great-great grandmother Theressa, a mail-order bride purchased for $75 and put on a ship from Massachusetts all the way around the tip of Chile and back up to coastal Washington, a then-new state full of loggers looking for wives. We’ll hear about Asa Mercer, the man who “cooked up the scheme” to ship women out west and deceived them into thinking they’d be able to live independent lives there. We’ll hear about how the hundreds of unions between native women and white men in Washington were annulled with the coming of statehood, and how, under the Constitution, those women were “no longer considered people.” We’ll hear about how, at 14, after years of abuse, Schreck’s mother called the cops on her stepfather, a handsome barber named Dick who beat his wife Bette (Schreck’s grandmother), raped Bette’s oldest daughter, and, when he found out one of the children had reported him, attempted to kidnap them with the help of “his constitutionally protected gun.” We’ll hear about the Equal Protection Clause and the “penumbra” of Amendment 9, about Dred Scott v. Sandford and Castle Rock v. Gonzales and Griswold v. Connecticut. And we’ll hear about Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, imaginary friends and swimming fairies, witches and Greek tragedy and Picasso — and a very cute, very important little sock-monkey named George the Second’s Friend.

Schreck darts masterfully back and forth between reminiscence and reportage, between the facts of her own life and the facts of this country’s violent self-imagining. Her tone is a miraculous blend of brutal and bright, like a juggler keeping chainsaws aloft. (Director Oliver Butler works with her to find exactly the right tempo — allegro vivace with sporadic, unsettling moments of pause.) She makes hairpin turns between witty hilarity and accounts of injustice, cruelty, and dehumanization that sit in the pit of the stomach like blazing stones. But even in these stories, like those of her grandmother Bette or of Jessica Gonzalez, she never turns maudlin or wrathful. In a way, her deliberately upbeat swiftness, punctuated by those latent flashes of deep disturbance, is a commentary on all the stereotypical demands placed on female expression: “Smile!” “Don’t be so emotional!” “You’ll get farther if you’re nicer.” She confesses to us that she was “raised to be psychotically polite,” and in this sense her sunniness is a tactic many of us know all too well. But her refusal to rage — though she must and does eventually shed her yellow jacket and reveal her exhaustion — struck me with another significance. It reminded me of the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s words near the end of her show Nanette (also a theatrical, semi-memoiristic reckoning with ingrained histories of violence, specifically violence against women). “I am angry,” says Gadsby, “and I believe I’ve got every right to be angry. But what I don’t have a right to do is spread anger. I don’t. Because anger, much like laughter, can connect a room full of strangers like nothing else … Just because I can position myself as a victim does not make my anger constructive. It is never constructive … Stories hold our cure.”

What Gadsby and Schreck both realize, and what Schreck’s play reveals so profoundly, is that getting to know each other, on the most intimate, human-to-human level, is our only hope. This is why we’ve got to hear Schreck’s story — and her mother’s, her grandmother’s, and her great-great grandmother’s. And Mike’s. And Rosdely’s. (The buoyant, needle-sharp Rosdely Ciprian is one of two actual teenage debaters, local students who join Schreck on stage for the last part of her show; I saw her, but you might see 17-year-old Thursday Williams depending on which night you go.) This expansion of viewpoint makes What the Constitution Means to Me all the more wise and humane. Iveson isn’t simply asked to represent a figure from Schreck’s past, or to stand for Men in General — though he does both. But he also gets a chance to introduce himself. Stepping to the front of the stage and removing his American Legion get-up piece by piece, Iveson talks about the years he spent “refusing to be boxed in gender-wise,” about growing up a nerdy gay kid with a very charming (and very masculine) British working-class father, and about his own uncertainty over how to respond when men have tried to engage him in troubling locker-room talk about women. He’s suddenly in the room with us as himself, as fully and vulnerably as Schreck has been if not for as long. It’s a vital part of Schreck’s show, as is the appearance of the elfin, astonishingly self-assured Rosdely, who’s a remarkable young human in her own right — as well as a startling reminder of what 14 actually looks like. This is the age at which Schreck competed for college money in front of rooms full of adult men (“Of course, you all know so much more about the Constitution than I do because you have all fought in wars. Thank you,” she rattles off to us at one point, earnest and pointed all at once). And this is the age at which her mother dared to report her abusive step-grandfather to the police. It’s a terrifying age — smart and brave and on the edge of everything, and so, so young.

As we get to know Mike and Rosdely and Heidi Schreck, the play shows us the cruel limitations of abstract systems, of rules interpreted and enforced without imagination, without interest in or ability to envision another human being’s story. In one of the show’s most chilling moments, Schreck plays a recording of Justices Scalia and Breyer during the Castle Rock v. Gonzalez Supreme Court trial: They focus not on the mother whose children were kidnapped and killed by her husband, not on the negligence of the local police, who failed to show up no matter how many times Gonzalez called them. Instead, they pedantically debate the meaning of the word “shall.” It’s rhetoric stripped of humanity, and it’s the reason that Schreck’s recreated version of the speeches she once gave about the Constitution must take longer, go farther, and get messier than the strictures of any contrived competition can allow. Schreck is reclaiming her time. Though she initially respects Iveson’s Legionnaire character’s rulings — stumbling over her words when he holds up the “10 seconds left” sign, or cramming stories that are becoming too personal back in their box with a strained, cheerful “Thank you!!” when he hits the “time’s up” bell — the forced march can’t last. Schreck can’t play her ebullient, compliant 15-year-old self forever. And the first time she turns to Iveson and tells him to “hold on a second,” it feels like a door cracking open. Neither of them knows what’s beyond it. This is new territory, not regulation, and Schreck, now a woman in her forties, tasks herself to step through and find out. “I’d really like for all of this to disappear now,” she says quietly, late in the show, gesturing to her surroundings. “This contest. All of … this. A big set change!” Laughter ripples in the audience as nothing happens, no Broadway magic, no flying out or gliding away for Hauck’s big wooden box. “But it’s not that kind of show,” Schreck sighs, “Maybe we can all imagine that we’re someplace else now.”

Like so much of What the Constitution Means to Me, this joke about an impossible bit of stagecraft makes us laugh, but it also vibrates with a second layer of meaning. Schreck’s set isn’t just her set: It’s the box in which we all live, our fractured country, our troubled Constitution, our long history of rules made by, of, and for white men, to ensure, first and foremost, their own safety, prosperity, personhood, and power. There can be no magical set change because that box, that history, isn’t going away. We live in it and it in us. But there can be, in Schreck’s words, “a collective act of ethical visualization” — almost like putting on a play: a commitment to finding our way forward first by learning each other’s stories, and then by imagining together.

Update: What the Constitution Means to Me has ended its run at NYTW, but it will transfer to the Greenwich House Theater, where it will play from November 27 through December 30.

Theater Review: ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’