Last Thursday was a rough day, both emotionally and constitutionally. We spent the morning watching a self-evidently kind and caring woman give a wrenching account of the sexual assault she said she suffered in high school. Then in the afternoon we watched a self-evidently injudicious man yell, sob, and sneer his way through his refutation of that allegation. It was a day to make you depressed about our government, our country, our system—to make you wonder if the rules and regulations, the checks and balances, established 200-odd years ago can and will remain workable today.
Then last Thursday night I went to New York Theater Workshop to see What the Constitution Means to Me. The play is an anguished, deeply personal, and ultimately hopeful look at whose rights are protected and respected under our governing document and whose are not—a divide starkly illustrated on cable news earlier that day. It was also the perfect antidote, or tonic, or perhaps catharsis, for the dreadful day. Indeed, it might well be the necessary piece for this entire dreadful time.
What the Constitution Means to Me, which opened tonight, is the latest work from Heidi Schreck, the writer and actor who has won two Obie Awards as a performer. Schreck, who here serves as both playwright and star, as a teen earned money for college by traveling the country and giving talks to American Legion halls about the U.S. Constitution. Here, she recounts that experience and reflects on it, interweaving her the harrowing stories of her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother—all women mistreated by men, and mostly unable to escape that mistreatment.
This isn’t as dour as it sounds. Schreck is a warm, engaging presence, and her script, too, conveys an ingratiating conversational warmth. Mike Iveson, the Elevator Repair Service regular, joins her as a nondescript American Legioner, a charmingly goofy presence in the recollected world she’s inhabiting. But also, there’s more dourless: Eventually, he, too, incorporates his own story, recounting an incident of gay-bashing in New York.
But what makes the play so impressive, and so necessary, is Schreck’s earnest, well-intentioned interest in reckoning not just with what’s gone wrong in our system, but also what’s gone right. (It’s the sort of well-intentioned, earnest, helpful, somehow good-humored interrogatory at which we learned earlier in the day women can excel, while at least some men rage.) We hear snippets of Supreme Court arguments, to get a feel for how justices identify new rights, or don’t, and also how even in that august and seemingly timeless chamber times have in fact changed.
And, finally, we meet a young New York City debater, today’s version of the girl Schreck once was, who both charms everyone in the room (at the performance I saw, it was Rosdely Ciprian, a high-school freshman; at other performances it is Thursday Williams, a Queens high-school senior) and sounds a necessary, if perhaps rose-colored, note about the flexibility and resilience of our system.
What the Constitution Means to Me is runs a bit more than 90 minutes, and it drifts a bit near the end. As winning as the youngster is, the storytelling stalls a bit once she comes onstage. But this is a minor defect, and her presence, at least on the night I attended, brings the play to a hopeful ending.
As directed by the off-Broadway vet Oliver Butler, the Debate Society co-founder and Obie winner, the evening has a warm vibe that’s friendly but not light. The set by Rachel Hauck is a playfully idealized version of a nostalgic, all-American Legion hall.
But despite these collaborators, despite these other performers, the evening can’t help feeling almost like a one-woman show, a unified display Shreck’s passion, intelligence, hopefulness, and wistfulness. It’s hard to know what the Constitution means to any of us anymore. But it’s comforting to spend some time with Shreck, as we all try to figure it out.
What the Constitution Means to Me opened September 30, 2018, at New York Theatre Workshop and runs through October 28. Tickets and information: nytw.org