The U.S. Constitution is an imperfect document: Built on compromise; patched with amendments, vague where one wants it to be specific; of its time, and slow to keep up. Still, you know, look around the world: As a set of guidelines for governing, it’s comparatively pretty great — so long as you have leaders who don’t too often abuse it.
As a kid, Heidi Schreck loved the Constitution. From age 15 she competed in oratory contests on the topic at American Legion halls. Now in her 40s, the performer, playwright, and television writer (Nurse Jackie) is revisiting her adolescent passion for our nation’s founding to-do list in a nearly one-woman show, What the Constitution Means to Me, which has opened on Broadway after a celebrated downtown run directed, as here, by Oliver Butler.
“I was a zealot,” about the Constitution, Schreck says, addressing the audience, before stepping behind the podium to become her teenage self. Young Heidi’s speeches won her prize money that paid for her college education. (There’s applause when she mentions that fact — perhaps especially enthusiastic this week, what with the headlines about wealthy college cheats doctoring photos of their scions playing water polo.) She recalls a competing debater by name, the petty rivalries of high school as firmly fixed in memory as the paneled walls of the legion hall that she has recreated with the help of her scenic designer (Rachel Hauck).
Unlike her nemesis who would win points by telling cozy stories about her grandmother, Schreck claims she was was not comfortable sharing personal anecdotes back then. She’s gotten over it. With Tracy-Flick pluck, she dives into an energetic civics lesson. And soon, she springboards from the Ninth and 14th Amendments to talk about the women in her family, and about herself in the most personal terms, and how all their lives were touched — sometimes slammed — by they way the Constitution’s words have been interpreted. Why, she now wonders, have these legal protections done so little to protect women?
She seems betrayed when she thinks of the fate of her great-great-grandmother, a mail-order bride who perhaps didn’t have to die young. Of her grandmother and mother, who survived domestic abuse. Of the abortion she had to keep secret. It’s no small achievement to eke laughs out of that material, but Schreck certainly does, her humor swinging from self-deprecating to the can-you-believe-these-guys variety. She makes clever use of audio clips of actual Supreme Court justices dithering over how birth control devices work, or debating the meaning of the word “shall.” Antonin Scalia, notes Schreck, “ultimately decided that ‘shall’ did not mean ‘must.’ Which is confusing because Scalia was a devout Catholic.” It isn’t the only line that squarely hits its target: “I’m the daughter of a father,” she says, by way of explaining that she doesn’t hate men. That phrase could, if everyone sees this play, shut down the “As the father of daughters…” thinking by male politicians inclined to protect women only when they’ve helped make one.
Little wonder that teenage Schrek won all those contests; she is an engaging storyteller, though one prone to tangents. Her tangents have tangents. Like the object of its affection, What the Constitution Means To Me is imperfect. It is shaggily structured, but also original, which is to be celebrated in our nervous time that favors adaptations of beloved (read: tested) properties. Is she making it up as she goes along? No, but she gives the occasional impression of wrestling with history — her own, and America’s — for the first time in our presence. (Reviews of her Off Broadway run, which I did not see, noted this and she responds here somewhat snarkily, “It’s not my fault you can’t see the structure.”)
Given the topicality of her seemingly ad-libbed text, one wants to shout out other amendments for her to tackle, like fans at a band’s reunion tour, hoping to hear the hits. “Hey, do the 25th!”or “Let’s hear the Second!” (That’s the one invoked for impeachment, and the one that protects the right to bear arms.)
But ultimately the show is a personal journey more than a political one, and its emotional climax revolves around an entirely different item of childhood nostalgia — a sock monkey. Then, following this first ending, Schreck debates with a teenager over whether we should keep or abolish the Constitution. There are two young women sharing the role; I saw the entirely electable Thursday Williams, an actress and aspiring member of Congress.
The only other person on stage is the unnamed American Legion officer. In that supporting role, Mike Iveson evokes Dana Carvey doing George H.W. Bush — just the right amount of silly earnestness. That is until he, too, breaks the fourth wall to tell us a story about Mike Iveson. This may be to give Schreck a break during the show, which is 100 minutes with no intermission. While Iveson has an emotional tale, the diversion doesn’t make sense. One wants to go back and tell 15-year-old Heidi: “Someday you’re going to have a Broadway stage all to yourself, and people are going to pay to listen to you talk about the things you care the most about. You have the right to not share your stage with a guy, even if he has, as you say, ‘positive male energy.’” Not all our rights are spelled out because, as she (and the author of the Ninth Amendment) notes, “How long do we want this document to be?” B+