Crucible or Patchwork Quilt?—What the Constitution Means to Me

 

 

 

Heidi Schreck

 

 

 

by Samuel L. Leiter

 

A few months ago, I asked my friend Richard, house manager of Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater, what was next on the venue’s agenda. When he answered What the Constitution Means to Me, I said I’d liked it very much at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop last October but thought it wouldn’t work on Broadway. Now that it’s opened, I must eat my words; not only is it even better the second time around, it stands a good chance of snaring a Tony.

Heidi Schreck’s (Grand Concourse) unconventional, metatheatrical play, in which she also stars, is a true original: educational and funny, superbly performed, and blazingly topical. The production is so close to last fall’s that I doubt I could describe it better than I did back then. What follows is a revision of that account.

Schreck is an exceptionally smart cookie who, at 15, began earning college scholarship money while competing, and usually winning, American Legion debate contests focused on the Constitution. Over the past decade she’s been developing her play under various auspices; its excellent direction is by Oliver Butler.

 

Heidi Schreck, Mike Iveson

 

The premise is that Schreck, playing herself, is recreating a 1989 debate, which took place at an American Legion post in her small hometown of Wenatchee, in the state of Washington. Rachel Hauck’s design, lit by Jen Schriever, is a wide expanse representing the paneled walls of a Legion post, lined with dozens of photos of white men in military caps and backed by standing United States and American Legion flags. To further heighten the atmosphere, we’re asked to pretend we’re an audience of cigar-smoking white men. 

Schreck, blonde and in her late 40s, wearing tight jeans, a white blouse, and a yellow sports jacket (Michael Krass, costume design), informs us that her reconstruction has to rely on her memory of her 1989 speech because her mom discarded it (although she saved 12-year-old Heidi’s hair when she cut it off to look like Annie Lennox). A Legionnaire (Mike Iveson), in typical cap and jacket, serves as the moderator, explaining the ground rules, announcing the topics, holding up remaining-time cards, and ringing a bell to cut off speeches.

First, the contestants must explain their understanding of the Constitution and how it relates to their lives. Next, they must extemporize on an amendment they draw at random from a can. Schreck reverts to her 15-year-old self, delivering her speech about the Constitution being a “crucible”; her opponent’s theme is that the Constitution is a patchwork quilt. The Amendment Schreck picks is the Fourteenth, Section One. Briefly, this concerns the equal protection of all citizens under the laws. For context, frequent reference also is made to the Ninth Amendment.

As the hour and 40-minute program proceeds, Schreck slips back and forth between her youthful self and her present one, the latter gradually becoming dominant as, driven by the question before her, she presents what is essentially a memoir of the spousal abuse suffered by her female antecedents, including what she witnessed in the lives of her mother and grandmother. Much of her time is occupied with arguments concerning violence toward women, women’s rights, and abortion, her own included. Occasionally, the narrative digresses, which she herself notes, but nothing she says lacks relevance to her arguments. Also, the script makes room for nightly variations.

 

Rosdely Ciprian

 

While we never meet young Heidi’s opponent, Becky Lee Dobbins, from Lawrence, Kansas, the play’s loose structure (on which Schreck satirically comments) allows us to hear from the moderator. This happens when Iveson sheds his Legionnaire persona to be himself, providing “positive male energy” in the form of a personal story about his sexuality. It’s interesting, and exceedingly well done, but seems, as it did last year, more a distraction to allow Iveson valuable stage time than an actual necessity. It does, however, offer an invaluable injection of variety.

Toward the end, an even more surprising twist arrives when 14-year-old schoolgirl Rosdely Ciprian debates Schreck on the question of whether or not the Constitution should be abolished, each taking the opposite position. Meanwhile, pocket-sized Constitutions are distributed to the audience, which is asked to hoot, holler, and howl for or against contestants’ points. Finally, an audience member decides the winner and the contestants cozy up to answer a few written questions submitted by the audience.

Ciprian is an extraordinarily gifted kid, who most definitely will one day make a name for herself in whatever she pursues. (Thursday Williams alternates with her.) Schreck herself is awesome, filled with anger, vulnerability, astuteness, pain, and (often self-deprecating) comedy. She’s as likely to get a Tony nod for her acting as well as her writing.

What the Constitution Means to Me is stunningly absorbing, and, given its driving pace, there’s a lot to absorb. It’s an educational, if somewhat polemical, event that makes its lessons that much more pertinent by their connection to Schreck’s personal experiences. When it’s over, however, you may give that little pamphlet a look to discover what the Constitution means to you.

 

What the Constitution Means to Me. Through July 21 at the Helen Hayes Theater/Second Stage (240 West 44th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). One hour, 40 minutes, no intermission. www.ConstitutionBroadway.com

 

Photos: Joan Marcus

 

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