When she was 15, Heidi Schreck gave speeches about the United States Constitution in American Legion halls across the country to win money for college. Her teenage years were spent in these stuffy corridors lined with photos of men, many of whom were also in her audience deciding whether or not she deserved scholarship funds. In her memory, these men were always seated in full military uniform, smoking cigars.
What you see onstage during the first half of Schreck’s newest play, What the Constitution Means to Me, at the New York Theatre Workshop, is a facsimile of her time as a teenage apostle for one of America’s founding documents. Now 40 years old, the playwright and actress revisits her past with the bitter aftertaste of a democracy run by President Donald Trump, whose chauvinistic outbursts over the last two years cast a bleak shadow across Schreck’s narrative. That’s because she isn’t initially interested in pandering to the eternal American optimism of her youth, although she’ll get there later; instead, Schreck first wants her audiences to understand how difficult it is for women to live in a country whose framework typically favors rich white men.
Towards the beginning of the play, Schreck explains that her speeches about the Constitution often employed elaborate metaphors. Performing as her teenage self, she compares the Constitution to a magic crucible, while her competitors propose blander interpretations of the document as a patchwork quilt or a forest of living trees. “You put ingredients in there, like ferrous alloys or lobsters, and boil them all up together until they make something else,” Schreck says. Her intelligence carries these loony metaphors to astonishingly believable conclusions, the way a brilliant professor might be able to explain the entirety of macroeconomics with a couple of toothpicks and a bag of skittles.
“A crucible is also a severe test of patience or belief,” she soon clarifies. “The Constitution can be thought of as a boiling pot in which we are thrown together in sizzling and steamy conflict to find out what it is we really believe.” Schreck is a MacGyver of constitutional debate, explaining the document’s Amendments and clauses through amazing feats of metaphor.
Channeling her sometimes overzealous devotion to the Constitution for dramatic effect, Schreck knows how to build optimism in the American framers before drilling down to its more malignant core. One through line is her love for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who used Amendments Nine and Fourteen in the major 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut ruling to establish a woman’s right to contraception on the basis of an individual’s right to privacy. Blissfully, Schreck describes Amendment Nine as a magical “penumbra” that the framers left intentionally ambiguous enough to allot citizens extra rights not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution’s text. Minutes later, however, she reveals that Douglas’ landmark opinion on the Griswold case had less to do with judicial heroism than it did with the judge’s own self-interest. The 67-year-old justice was sleeping with a 22-year-old college student at the time, and four other judges on the Griswold court were rumored to have been sleeping with young women.
There is no doubt that Schreck is an expert solo performer. Her congenial attitude alleviates the play’s many tense moments, but there’s something amiss here. Hers is the sly candor of a fox: the noncommittal way she mumbles through the script convinces the audience that tonight’s particular performance is an impromptu, ad-libbed step beyond the play’s normal routine. It’s a special skill that allows her to get intimate with the audience as she discusses generations of family trauma, gender bias, and abortion. The genius of this fantastic piece is how Schreck weaves that now almost-archetypal patter of a one-woman show into the fabric of today’s contentious political debates.
Fortunately, Schreck also intends to heal some of the heartache she unearths during What the Constitution Means to Me. The show’s final moments graciously expand our viewpoint into the show’s titular thesis by introducing a young debater, the whip-smart Rosdely Ciprian. (The performance I saw featured 14-year-old Ciprian, but other nights star her counterpart, Thursday Williams.) Ciprian’s surprise appearance is twofold: she is here to challenge the assumptions about the Constitution that Schreck has built through the play, and also to present an image of what 14 years old actually looks like.
A self-serious debater with the discipline of a champion orator, Ciprian argues in favor of keeping the Constitution rather than trashing it and starting anew. Unlike Schreck, she doesn’t need a magical crucible to conjure the optimism manifest in the promise of a constitutional democracy. She would rather think of the document as a human being. “Are human beings perfect? No. Are we capable of perfection? No. But that doesn’t mean we are not valuable. We are always growing and changing. Learning. Just like us, this document is flawed. But just like us, it is also capable of getting better. And better. With every generation.”
Ciprian’s spirited defense of the Constitution injects the play’s ending with much-needed uplift. Her hopefulness does not feel naïve; rather, it crackles with the promise of defiant youth not yet soured to the possibilities of change. After all, if a teenager can have hope for the world, then why can’t we?
Written and directed by Heidi Schreck; directed by Oliver Butler; also featuring Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson, and Thursday Williams; scenic design by Rachel Hauck; costume design by Michael Krass; lighting design by Jen Schriever; sound design by Sinan Zafar; dramaturgy by Sarah Lunnie; stage management by Terri K. Kohler. The play was commissioned by True Love Productions and prudced in partnership with Clubbe Thumb.