Five Reasons Why What the Constitution Means to Me is an Experience Worth Having
By: Iris Wiener
April 8, 2019: Heidi Schreck opens her sensational play in an American Legion hall in her hometown of Wanatchee, Washington, where her 15 year-old self is competing in the regional semifinals of a Legion oratory contest. She announces that the topic of her speeches will be none other than “What the Constitution Means to Me,” as told through the lens of her teen persona in 1989 (the author and star is 45). But this is not the light-hearted, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed show that at first glance would cause audiences to stifle a small groan; this is Schreck’s shocking exploration of that Constitution: its omissions, its failures, and yes, its incredible importance. Here are just five of many reasons that this production is as essential as it is witty:
1. To discover the reasons behind Schreck having once compared the Constitution to a “living, warm-blooded, steamy document, hot and sweaty, a crucible, a witches’ cauldron.” The analogy paves the way for an engaging critical analysis of this breathing document for the next 90 minutes, but it won’t leave your thoughts any time soon after. (Nor will the image of Schreck’s “Greek Tragedy Cry,” but that is a secondary high point.)
2. To learn that there is a distinction between negative and positive rights listed in the Constitution; this is only one of many nuggets that may be surprising for audiences. Negative rights describe what the government cannot do, while positive rights describe the rights to which citizens are entitled. The difference is illuminating and challenges pre-existing notions of the document.
3. To experience a show that arguably has more of the writer’s heart in it than any other before it; through toggling between two perspectives, Schreck manages to find the humor in her adolescent infatuations (such as actor Patrick Swayze) while ruminating on her ancestors and how their experiences have shaped her discussion of feminism, justice and fear. In one moment she is considering her unlisted right to have a sock puppet as a best friend, while in the next she leaves audiences gasping at the fact that the word “woman” is never once mentioned in the Constitution.
4. To witness Oliver Butler’s excellent direction, which is decidedly more complex than one might assume. After all, this is a one-woman show…with a supporting cast. Mike Iveson sits stage left dressed as an oafish legionnaire, hanging onto every one of Schreck’s words while acting as the official time-keeper for young-Heidi. He has some tricks up his sleeve, and his carefully constructed interactions with Schreck are perfectly placed for moments of levity and poignancy. Butler’s pacing and staging of Constitution is genius, especially as it leads up to an actual debate with 14 year-old Rosedely Ciprian, posing the question, “Should we abolish the United States Constitution?” The side each person will take is a surprise to Schreck and the young actress every evening. Ciprian alternates performances with Thursday Williams, and both young actresses are prepared with their own tailor-made speeches for both sides of the argument. Schreck is prepared for a rebuttal with both, so she has four responses ready for the stage. This choice, whether it was ultimately Schreck’s or Butler’s, keeps the Constitution exciting and different every evening. With four possible shows to take in and an ever-changing political climate, every performance is especially unique.
5. To get to know the dynamo that is Heidi Schreck: a gift to theatre, a gift to comedy, and a gift to America. She may have been raised to be “psychotically polite,” but she grew up to be unassailably honest and intelligent. Personal stories about her family’s history of abuse are intertwined with the reality of 2019, in which women must live in a world filled with astronomically high statistics when it comes to male violence. She considers the Court’s interpretation of the word “shall” (even playing actual audio of the conversation that is disgustingly humorous). She points out the many rights that have not been guaranteed women, especially poignant with Alabama’s recent restrictions on abortions. Despite all of this, Schreck nears the end of her piece with an especially uplifting note: “The only thing holding us together right now as a country is a collective faith in this document.” It is up to audiences to rectify this in their own minds and, hopefully, consider the ways in which they can make a change.
What The Constitution Means To Me
The Helen Hayes Theater, 44th St. between 7th & 8th Ave. For Tickets call 212 239-6200 or Telecharge.com Thru August 24, 2019 Photography: Joan Marcus