“What the Constitution Means to Me” Engages Audience at McCarter; Heidi Schreck’s Play Debates the Founding Document’s Deserved Fate
“WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME”: The North American tour of “What the Constitution Means to Me” has played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre (December 7-12). Directed by Oliver Butler, the play depicts a debate between Jocelyn Shek (left) and playwright Heidi Schreck (Cassie Beck, right) about the merits — and deserved fate — of the Constitution. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
The North American tour of What the Constitution Means to Me has played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre December 7-12. Heidi Schreck’s play, which depicts a debate over the merits — and deserved fate — of the founding document, pulled the enthusiastic opening-night audience into the argument.
Schreck drew inspiration from a series of debates in which she participated as a teenager, giving speeches on what the Constitution meant to her. Money awarded at these contests helped pay Schreck’s college tuition. The play is set at one of the American Legion’s oratorical contests (in Wenatchee, Wash., where the playwright was raised).
A finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, What the Constitution Means to Me was commissioned by True Love Productions; the 2017 debut at the Wild Project in New York was followed by a West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. An off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop was followed by the 2019 Broadway production.
For much of the play the debate about the Constitution appears to be internal. Initially Schreck re-enacts her debate performance from the point of view of her 15-year-old self; although aware of injustice, she believes in the Constitution. (“I loved it. I was a zealot,” she recalls.) Later, as she learns more about the history of the country — and the women in her family — the adult Schreck angrily disowns her youthful idealism, rejecting long-ingrained beliefs.
Schreck performed as herself in previous productions; Cassie Beck portrays her in the tour. With marked changes in vocal inflections and body language, Beck successfully depicts the progression from optimistic teenager to disillusioned adult.
In the program Beck’s character is identified as “Heidi.” In the interest of clarity, that will inform this review, going forward, “Heidi” refers to the playwright’s onstage persona, while “Schreck” refers to her as the show’s creator.
In the play’s final section, the adult Heidi’s (justly) embittered viewpoint is challenged in an external debate. Her opponent is a pragmatic teenager (confidently played by Jocelyn Shek, whose biography in the program identifies her as a high school junior).
Wry but amiable, Heidi welcomes the audience, and sets the scene of the debate. In keeping with the cheerful personality Heidi projects as a teenager, costume designer Michael Krass outfits her with a bright yellow blazer.
Quickly eliminating any semblance of a fourth wall, Heidi comments on Rachel Hauck’s set, which depicts an American Legion hall. She describes it as “not a naturalistic representation” but reconstructed “from my dreams. It’s like one of those crime-victim drawings.” The wall is covered with photos of male veterans.
Early on it is clear that the play will not allow the audience to be passive spectators. Heidi casts us in a role: “We performed these speeches to audiences of older — mostly white — men” who “were all smoking cigars. I would love it if you would be the men for me. You are all men now.” (Later we are excused from acting as Legionnaires, but we are assigned a new task.)
A gruff Legionnaire (Mike Iveson) outlines the rules of the contest, which is in two parts. The first gives contestants seven minutes to demonstrate understanding of — and personal connection with — the Constitution. The second will require them to speak extemporaneously about an amendment they draw from a can; Heidi draws the Fourteenth Amendment.
“The Constitution is a living document. That is what is so beautiful about it,” the 15-year-old Heidi gushes, describing it as “a crucible … a pot in which you put many different ingredients and boil them together until they transform into something else.” She dryly adds, “So you see, our Constitution is like a witch’s cauldron.”
After thanking the Legionnaires for their service and “for giving me so much scholarship money,” Heidi abruptly remarks that they remind her of a vision she had as a girl, of “being attacked by a rapist or murderer,” but convincing the attacker to spare her: “I make you see that — just like you — I am a human being.”
Director Oliver Butler (who staged the Broadway production) maintains visual interest by juxtaposing movement against stillness. Heidi has a distinct mixture of unsparing content and exuberant delivery; she gestures expressively as she speaks, periodically gliding around the stage.
By contrast, the Legionnaire sits motionless. He is reserved and (unless giving instructions) unresponsive. Noticeably, he spends as much time staring at the photographs as he does paying attention to Heidi.
Heidi periodically illustrates her commentary with recordings of Supreme Court hearings such as Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965), in which the (all-male) court ruled that the Constitution protects married couples’ freedom to purchase and use contraceptives.
During these segments, lighting designer Jen Schriever illuminates the photos and dims the other lights, letting the veterans cast an intimidating, patriarchal shadow over the debate. Aided by Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design, Schreck presents excerpts that contain copious coughing (and rhetorical hair-splitting), making the hearings sound like rather doddering proceedings.
As Heidi metaphorically casts off her youthful optimism, she physically removes the yellow blazer, revealing a more somber dark blue shirt. Conversely, the Legionnaire removes his dignified blue uniform and gruff, reserved demeanor, revealing a bright yellow T-shirt and a jovial personality to match.
Heidi frankly discusses the history of the women in her family (several of whom were abused), as well as her own fear of sexual assault during college. She also probes dark aspects of American history — particularly decisions (such as Dred Scott v. Sandford) that have affected marginalized groups’ citizenship status. Realizing that the Constitution was not designed to protect all Americans (especial those who are not white men), Heidi concludes that it is an irreparably flawed document, and it should be abolished and replaced.
On this point, Shek fiercely challenges her. Once more adopting the Legionnaire’s function, Iveson moderates a debate between Shek and the adult Heidi. Shek’s thesis is that abolishing the constitution would eliminate decades of progress and hard-won protections.
Notably, Shek is the only person onstage who never wears a shirt that is either bright yellow or dark blue; instead, she has been outfitted with a bright red shirt. This is consistent with the fresh perspective her character brings as a representative of a younger generation. She chooses neither the unquestioning patriotism represented by the Legionnaire, nor the adult Heidi’s willingness to attack the structural fabric of the country. Rather, she seeks a (more moderate) third path.
Shek also argues that people should try to make palpable and viable change by running for office. In keeping with this call for citizens to be actively engaged in politics, the audience — again required to be an interactive participant — is asked to vote for or against the opposing viewpoints, via applause and cheers. To aid our decision-making, we are handed pocket copies of the Constitution (donated by the ACLU). On opening night at McCarter, at least, the audience voted that the Constitution would not be abolished.
Along with the arc of Heidi’s development, and the production’s illustration of the script’s themes, this audience participation is what makes the play such a successful piece of theater. In 2020 Amazon Prime published a video of the Broadway production, which is valuable for those interested in viewing Schreck’s performance.
But the beauty of What the Constitution Means to Me is that it really needs the interaction and energy afforded by a live audience. Like the Constitution itself, Schreck’s play is a “living document,” whose ultimate goal is to empower audiences to decide what the Constitution means to us.
For a list of venues that will present the tour of What the Constitution Means to Me, visit constitutionbroadway.com. To learn about McCarter Theatre’s upcoming events, visit mccarter.org.