"What the Constitution Means to Me" Review

"What the Constitution Means to Me" Review

The personal was declared political during the Second-Wave feminist movement of the 1970s, and it still is today – especially at New York Theatre Workshop, where “What the Constitution Means to Me,” the moving and all-too-timely play by writer and actor Heidi Schreck, is in performances.

A simple and at times surprisingly powerful show, Schreck’s play, 10 years in the making, recalls her adolescent weekends spent at the American Legion Hall speech and debate contests, competing for cash prizes that were promptly deposited into her college savings fund.

Directed by Oliver Butler, Schreck shifts between her present-day persona and her 15-year-old self, giving her teenage speeches from memory while frequently straying off-track with commentary and reflections from her personal experiences as an adult. Both points of view – one innocent and earnest and the other slightly more somber but still enthusiastic, are insightful and undeniably moving.

Thursday Williams in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at New York Theatre Workshop, Photo by Joan Marcus

Thursday Williams in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at New York Theatre Workshop, Photo by Joan Marcus

Bounding onstage in jeans and a bright yellow blazer, brimming with energy, the adult Schreck launches into the subject of the country’s founding document with a zeal that is undeniably contagious. As a 15-year-old, behind the podium at the American Legion Hall designed by Rachel Hauck, shifts in body language and delivery are noticeable, but her excitement is unaltered. To compete, Schreck was required to deliver a prepared statement on the Constitution and then deliver an extemporaneous speech on an Amendment drawn at random. She is given Amendment 14, Section 1 – an especially poignant section when considering the Trump Administration’s stance on immigration.  

Schreck’s teenage perspective on the document is both entertaining and enlightening, none more so than when she begins her speech titled “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution,” in which she described the document as filled with “sizzling and steamy conflict,” and deviates from the Founding Fathers to fantasies of crossing rainbows and an imaginary friend named Reba McIntyre.

Encouraged to include in her speech a personal connection to the document, Schreck shares stories of her own family and it’s quickly apparent that a she has developed an acute awareness regarding gender and how the Founding Fathers neglected to address equality, no doubt in part thanks to the experiences of the women in her own family. We learn that her great-grandmother, a mail-order bride, died at the age of 36 of “melancholia” in an institution. After losing her first husband at a young age, her grandmother married a man who beat her and sexually abused her children. Schreck also recalls her experience obtaining an abortion while living in an anti-abortion state and discusses the chemical depression that has affected the women in her family for generations.

Weaving these stories into her thoughts on the titular subject, Schreck remains an engaging and empathetic narrator, generously connecting with her audience (whom she has cast as “the men” judging her teenage performance at the American Legion). She never veers into self-indulgence, even while speaking of visibly painful memories, but rather rests in a beautifully human vulnerability that is welcome – and rare – in today’s caustic political culture.

Controversial Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is never mentioned by name during this show, but his presence hovers over the performance, no doubt inspiring and stifling some laughs, especially when Schreck focuses on the rights – or lack thereof – held by women in America. These facts – for they are facts – are often affixed at the conclusion of a lengthy statement, enhancing both their comedy and overall impact. After discussing reproductive rights, Schreck added matter-of-factly, “This allowed a woman to put in her IUD as long as her husband says it’s OK” or simply declares, “Our bodies have been left out of the document since the very beginning.” Schreck shows, rather than tells, the country’s lack of progress when playing recordings of the Supreme Court Justices discussing Castle Rock v. Gonzales, as the justices determine the legal right of a mother to sue police offers for neglect after her children were murdered by debating the meaning of the word “shall.”

But this show is still funny. Very funny, in fact. Schreck earnestly scrutinizes the document’s failure to offer protections to women and people of color, but, she assures the audience, she doesn’t hate men. In fact, she says, she “is the daughter of a father” and adds, “Some of my best friends are men!”

One of those men is Mike Iveson, who until then had played the Legion-appointed debate moderator and time keeper dressed in period-perfect oversized pleated pants and a Legionnaire hat. In an unexpected moment, he doffs his 1970s costume (designed by Michael Krass), and describes his own experiences with both sexual and gender identity and his discomfort with responding when men attempt to engage him in objectifying women.  

The prepared speech and debate format of the show has long since been abandoned, but it returns when Schreck is joined onstage by student debater. At this critic’s performance the challenger was Thursday Williams, a senior at William Cullen H.S. in Queens, who  engages with Schreck in an exchange over whether the Constitution should be abolished. Both this high-energy discussion and impressive young woman leave one with the clear impression that Schreck will continue to wrestle with this document – and, one hopes, the audience will, too.

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