Commentary: Why every Republican senator must see Heidi Schreck’s ‘Constitution’ on Amazon
A film of the Broadway production of Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” premieres Friday on Amazon Prime Video, and theater lovers who are keeping a close eye on Congress may feel as though a bugle call has been blown and the cavalry is about to charge in.
Confirmation proceedings are underway for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Republican senators, flouting their own rule that denied a hearing for President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court in his last year in office, are determined on the eve of a presidential election to push through a staunch conservative who would tilt the court even further to the right, putting into immediate jeopardy the Affordable Care Act and eventually abortion rights.
If I could assign one play to the Republicans serving on the Judiciary Committee who are supposed to be vetting President Trump’s choice for this lifetime appointment, it would be Schreck’s powerfully personal account of how the Constitution has affected her life, her body and her sense of safety in a society in which violence against women is routine.
The production, directed by Oliver Butler at the Hayes Theater, has been sensitively captured in this film by Marielle Heller, who remains on a hot streak after “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The charm, humor and, most important, the stirring directness of Schreck’s performance are preserved in all their remarkable individuality onscreen.
Patti LuPone, Lynn Nottage, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Young Jean Lee, Joe Mantello and others answer the question: How should theater be different?
“What the Constitution Means to Me” opened at the Mark Taper Forum in January, but not with Schreck, who was pregnant at the time with twins. I was pleased to discover that the play is strong enough not to depend on the performance of its author, but Schreck’s brings an emotional intensity that elevates the work to another level. Having seen the show three times, I would unreservedly describe it as one of the highlights of my theatergoing in the last 10 years.
The setup is playful and simple. A champion orator when she was a teenager in Wenatchee, Wash., Schreck earned her college tuition by making speeches on the Constitution in competitions at American Legion Halls in cities as far-flung as Denver and Fresno. Curious about her youthful zealotry, she decided to resurrect the contest of her prize-winning speech, portraying her feverish 15-year-old self through the eyes of an adult woman whose experiences have only deepened her understanding of what’s at stake in these tumultuous constitutional battles.
Heller’s agile camerawork keeps pace with the dynamism of the play’s star as she gallops across the diorama of Rachel Hauck’s American Legion Hall set. Gamely deploying her statuesque frame, Schreck at one point does a kind of “Riverdance” jig while imitating her grandmother’s technique as a log runner.
Photographs of legionnaires stare at the audience. Theatergoers at the Hayes were asked by Schreck to stand in for these war veterans for whom she used to do oratorical cartwheels. The parallel between this group and the Supreme Court, which for most of its history was similarly white and male, isn’t lost on her. The patriarchal gaze — judging, controlling, threatening and protecting while dolling out occasional rewards — incites her to theatrical action.
Joining Schreck on stage is Mike Iveson, who dons American Legion drag in his role as the contest rule keeper. This framework is maintained only as needed in a play that drolly calls attention to its own fluidity. Schreck jokes, “In spite of what some people think, this show is actually quite carefully constructed.” She’s right. Entertainingly casual as it may seem, “What the Constitution Means to Me” is as meticulously worked out as a legal brief.
In tracing the circuitous judicial path that led to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, Schreck takes us on a tour of two crucial amendments: the 9th, which ensures that “just because a certain right is not listed in the Constitution, it doesn’t mean you don’t have that right,” and the 14th Amendment, which Schreck’s youthful self compares to “a giant, super-charged force field protecting all of your human rights.” She has a special fondness for the 9th, because (borrowing Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ metaphor of “penumbra”) it recognizes that the Constitution is operating partly in the dark when it comes to the future and “that who we are now may not be who we will become.”
It’s a living document, in other words, subject to the same evolutionary push and regressive pull as our society. Schreck shares some audio of a stodgy group of male Supreme Court justices deliberating on the issue of birth control in a 1965 case. The awkward pauses and embarrassed coughs illustrate the way in which as the times change, so too does the perception of reality.
This discussion of constitutional history is full of humor and light, but behind it lies an emotional awareness of the direct impact the male-dominated Court has had on the liberties and possibilities of women. Schreck reels off horrific statistics about rape, domestic violence and intimate partner homicide, but numbers only reveal the scope, not the lived detail.
The contests that Schreck excelled in asked her to draw a personal connection to the Constitution. Not comfortable in her youth talking about difficult family history, she allows her adult self to take over and share the stories of her great-great-grandmother, a mail-order bride from Germany who died at 36 in a mental hospital, and her maternal grandmother, whose violent second husband threatened the life of her children, who were called upon to testify against their stepfather in court.
The traumatic nature of this material is visible in the silences that momentarily engulf Schreck’s recounting. Emotion colors her face as she works to press on with her story, which bravely includes her own experience of having an abortion when she was a 21-year-old college grad with her future before her.
The details in Schreck’s account — including her “psychotically polite” interaction with the woman at the anti-choice pregnancy testing center, her boyfriend’s offer to pay for half of the procedure (and turn the outing into a camping trip) and her feminist mother’s inability to deal with the situation — personalize the meaning of “choice” for a young woman trying to realize the dreams that her mother and grandmother were unable to pursue.
As conservatives square off against liberals in the abortion debate, individual stories are buried under an avalanche of abstractions. In “What the Constitutions Means to Me,” the political is unfailingly personal in a way that never feels cramped or solipsistic.
Schreck expands the purview of her constitutional exploration by allowing Iveson a few moments to recount his own experiences of gender oppression and violence as a gay man. “You are so welcome to be yourself,” she says to her audience after releasing them from the task of playing the legionnaires. These words represent perhaps the deepest implication of her play’s constitutional philosophy.
The show ends with a parliamentary-style debate featuring Rosdely Ciprian, a formidable teenage orator, who argues for abolishing the Constitution and starting over from scratch. Schreck takes the opposing position, arguing to preserve the best tool we have for improving our system. When I saw the show on Broadway, the sides were switched. The point isn’t to settle the matter but to engage people in the thorniest questions of our democracy.
The civil rights activist Diane Nash is quoted during the debate: “Freedom is, by definition, people realizing that they are their own leaders.” Much as I wish the senators would take a break from their ideological wrangling to watch “What the Constitutions Means to Me,” I think it’s even more important that everyday citizens experience this deeply moving theater piece.
Schreck reminds us that the heavy lifting of democracy is our job; the struggle for equality doesn’t end with a single election or Supreme Court confirmation. In dark times, it can be tempting to throw in the towel. But the onus and the opportunity belong to us.
‘What the Constitution Means to Me’
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)
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