Heidi Schreck, a writer and performer who’s worked on shows like “Nurse Jackie” and “Billions,” has delivered a show that seems to be ripped from the headlines — despite being a work in progress for the better part of a decade.
In “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which opened Sunday at Broadway’s Hayes Theater after premiering last fall at the New York Theatre Workshop, Schreck recounts her experience as a 15-year-old in Wenatchee, Washington, competing for prize money at American Legion halls across the country in speech contests about the U.S. Constitution. “I was able to pay for my entire college education this way,” she says. “Granted, it was a state school. And a really long time ago.”
Faster than you can say Brett Kavanaugh — a name that surprisingly never crosses her lips all evening — Shreck jumps between embodying her teenage self (and her previous obsession with everything from the Salem witch trial to Patrick Swayze) and a modern fortysomething in the era of Trump. It’s the latter who’s able to reflect on her accumulated knowledge of both her family history (with women surviving both domestic abuse and abortion) and her more grown-up understanding of American history (particularly how constitutional protections often did not extend to women and minorities).
And she gradually begins to show how her girlhood ideas about the Constitution have evolved over time. “Maybe we shouldn’t think of the Constitution as a crucible in which we are all fighting it out, because if it’s a battle then the people who have always been in power — men, white people — will continue to dominate and oppress,” she says at one point. “Maybe instead, we could start thinking of the Constitution as a kind of ur-mother, whose job it is to look out for the most vulnerable among us.”
Schreck is an engaging storyteller with a delivery that seems improvised even when she is sticking to her winding but always-focused script. Again and again, she manages to explore the politics of constitutional rights through the lens of the personal. And of the individuals left out as Americans saw their rights expand.
Mike Iveson, an Elevator Repair Service alum who plays a Legionnaire, also sheds his persona late in the show to reveal more about himself — and his own anxieties about the American experiment despite his status as a white man.
Director Oliver Butler, working with set designer Rachel Hauck, re-creates an American Legion Hall on the stage — including walls of portraits of men, all white, who both judged those contests and shaped our understanding of American history and the stutter-step advancement of our rights and liberties.
Even those cold, watchful eyes might perk up toward the show’s end, when Schreck brings out a young New York City high schooler for a brief, formal debate with her on whether we should scrap the U.S. Constitution altogether and start from scratch.
The wonderfully composed 14-year-old Rosdely Ciprian astonished at my performance (she alternates with Thursday Williams). Despite the depressing state of the news (and our Twitter feeds) about the fragility of our democracy, Ciprian sends the audience out with an almost buoyant hope for the future.