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What the Constitution Means to Me

When I was 15 years old I traveled the country giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion halls for prize money. This was a scheme invented by my mom, who was a debate coach, to help me pay for college.— Heidi Schreck
What the Constitution Means to Me
Heidi Schreck
Of all the shows opening this season, Heidi's Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me best captures the mood of the moment in our country. Written and performed by Schreck, it is a trenchant autobiographical piece that resurrects the days that she toured the country as a 15 year-old high school debater, making speeches on the United States Constitution and earning award money for her college education.

Schreck has been developing the piece for a decade now, and it arrives at the New York Theatre Workshop like that proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove.

By curious happenstance, it opened on October 1st during the Senate vote on the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice. Although Schreck didn't say his name aloud from the stage, the event seemed to act like an invisible undertow in her monologue.

Veteran-actor Mike Iverson accompanies Schreck as an American Legionnaire who serves as the contest moderator. A real high school debater (Thursday Williams at my performance) steps in at the finale to go toe-to-toe with Schreck in a live parliamentary debate on whether the Constitution should be jettisoned —and one can see from the moment she confidently walks on stage that she's in charge, thank you.

The set by Rachel Hauck is a life-sized diorama of an American Legion Hall, with the essential accoutrements of a podium, flags, and a myriad portraits of Legionnaires. It faithfully conjures up the mood and atmosphere of when Schreck lived in Wenatchee, Washington and wore the mantle of high school debater par excellence.

Whereas Hauck's set holds a mirror up to nature, Schreck uses another trick to summon up her high school debating days. In her introduction, she invites the audience to imagine themselves to be those Legionnaires (think all white males) who once sat in the auditorium and judged her speeches. Thus everybody in the theater gets involved in the proceedings. What's more, one audience member will be asked at the finale to judge the fate of our Constitution. I makes for a cliffhanging finale that has all weighing on the wits of one person selected randomly from the audience.

It's difficult to fit this piece into a neat and tidy genre. But, as directed by Oliver Butler, and schizophrenically performed by Schreck as her 15 year-old and present-day self, it's a real eye-opener to what the Constitution is, and how it has evolved from the time our Founding Fathers wrote and presented it in 1787 as the backbone of our justice system.

It's evident that Schreck is well steeped in the document and knows its articles and amendments like the back of her right hand. But be prepared to get the theatergoer's equivalent of whiplash from following her as she hopscotches across decades, switching personae from young to present-day Heidi in a nanosecond.

Though the show is never boring it can be confusing at times to know which part of Heidi's psyche we are eavesdropping on.

The play's galloping pace that sometimes makes it feel like a runaway horse on stage, does slow down enough to allow you to reconsider some pivotal moments in American history when a specific amendment facilitated a major change in the social fabric of our country. Schreck best illustrates this when she is in her 15 year-old debater and is asked to speak extemporaneously—and from a personal perspective—on the Fourteenth Amendment. She breathlessly dives into her argument, and notes how the Fourteenth Amendment fueled the Civil Rights Movement with a lot of legwork from notables like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Height, Rosa Parks, and Bayard Rustin.

No, Schreck isn't soft-pedaling the Fourteenth Amendment here, for in the next beat she points out that it is in this same amendment that she first discovered the word "male" introduced in a clause to clarify the gender of those eligible to vote in 18th century America. She adds that her father, who was helping her with her speech, took some of the sting out of that passage by interpreting the Constitution as a brilliant but incomplete document. He cooked up the term "penalty box" which he said was the reason that females had to wait before gaining voting parity with males.

The 15-year-old Schreck d swallowed her father's bait. But looking back on her father's interpretation of the gender-divide in the Constitution prompts her to state that women surely had to wait a long, long time for the Nineteenth Amendment to arrive and undo that "penalty box."

Schreck gathers more steam as she plunges some of the Supreme Court decisions that have put a permanent blot on American history. She refers to the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case as the most "disgusting Supreme Court decision" ever to pass through the hallowed halls of the institution. Though, the slave who famously sued for his freedom in 1857 and lost his case in a 7-2 vote, Schreck soberly notes that Scott's brave spirit sowed the seeds for later victories — and in fact, opened the door to Lincoln's signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

If delving into the annals of American history provided the young Heidi ample material for her debate speeches, the present-day Heidi prefers to tap into the roots of her family tree to point out close-to-home instances of social injustice. She confesses that this is something that she shied away from as a 15 year-old debater but has no qualms about now about sharing stories about female relatives who were victims of either rape, domestic violence, or severe depression.

Perhaps the most poignant story is about her great-great grandma Theressa Birgitta Katerina Hildegard Finkas who her great-great grandpa ordered from a catalogue for $75. Schreck now wonders if Theressa took a leap of faith when she left her native Germany to get married, or if she was pressured by family members to pack up and go to America? Schreck doesn't pretend to know the answer to this, but we do learn that Theressa died of melancholia at age 36 in a state mental hospital and never became a citizen. Moreover, Schreck suspects that Theressa may well be the reason that all the women on the maternal side of her family tend to cry in the same melodramatic way. Schreck refers to it as "Greek tragedy crying" and demonstrates this crying phenomenon.

While I found the piece entertaining and instructive throughout, the constant shifting between the younger and older Heidi did does sometimes undermine it, giving the impression that Schreck can't make up her mind which Heidi can tell her story. Consequently, she remains a wee bit outside both her personae.

That said, What the Constitution Means to Me is a compelling exploration of this vital document. And, oh yes, you'll go home with a pocket Constitution to thumb through on your own.






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PRODUCTION NOTES
What the Constitution Means to Me
Written by Heidi Schreck
Directed by Oliver Butler
Cast: Heidi Schreck, Mike Iveson, and New York City high school students Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams.
Scenic design by Rachel Hauck
Costume design by Michael Krass
Lighting design by Jen Schriever
Sound design by Sinan Zafa
Dramaturgy by Sarah Lunnie
Running Time: Approx 90 minutesr
NYTheatre Workshop 79 E. 4th Street
From 9/12/18; opening 10/01/18; closing 10/28/18.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on 10/03/18


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