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Review: Unconventional ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ supremely argues the case for women

Review: Unconventional ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ supremely argues the case for women
Heidi Schreck in "What the Constitution Means to Me" at New York's Helen Hayes Theater. (Joan Marcus)

When actor and writer Heidi Schreck was a high school student in Wenatchee, Wash., she was racking up college tuition money by giving speeches on the majesty of the Constitution in contests organized by the American Legion.

Pick an Amendment and this self-described teenage zealot could deliver an impassioned address on its democratic superpower. Start the clock and hear her deliver a defense of this founding document’s magical ability to correct its blind spots over time.

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In “What the Constitution Means to Me,” the singularly charming, politically urgent and cathartically necessary play that had its official Broadway opening Sunday at the Helen Hayes Theater, Schreck tries to re-create from memory the prize-winning speech she gave as a 15-year-old. But that’s just the setup for a delightfully free-form theatrical experience.

This unconventional work is a hybrid creation, part play, part performance piece. The production, directed by Oliver Butler, brings into frolicsome dialogue an adult woman’s consciousness of contemporary fractured America with a youthful idealism that valiantly refuses to concede defeat.

On a set designed by Rachel Hauck to resemble an American Legion hall, Schreck jumps back in time to 1989 to remember the adolescent girl whose overheated rhetoric and giddy metaphors betray an obsession with the Salem witch trials and Patrick Swayze. Behind this fervid style is an incisive mind with a passionate commitment to the principle of equality, which from the nation’s beginning has been a source of endless controversy.

Schreck sends up her own goofy earnestness as she excitedly takes the microphone in a setting that includes a couple of flags, a sad potted plant and, as a stand-in for the original mostly white male audience for these oratorical showdowns, a paneled wall of headshots of Legionnaires. Actor Mike Iveson — impersonating one of these fellows with regulation blazer, hat and pin — poses questions and strictly enforces time limits in a play that sets up the contest structure only to discard it when it threatens to become too confining.

Remembering that the path to victory lies in drawing connections between her own life and the Constitution, Schreck begins to tell stories about the women in her family line. A key figure is her great-great-grandmother, Theresa, a German immigrant who came to Washington as a mail-order bride and died in a mental institution at age 36, a casualty of “melancholia.”

What occasions this bit of family history is the first clause of the 14th Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State in which they reside.” Schreck explains that Theresa was considered in her day a “good immigrant,” a determination arrived at through the “whim of lawmakers.” She doesn’t need to harp on Donald Trump’s “build the wall” demagoguery to remind us of just how heated these constitutional issues are today.

Engendering even more intensely private revelations is Clause 3 of this same amendment: “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Schreck explains how, in an act of breathtaking judicial interpretation involving the 9th and 14th amendments, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackman arrived at the “right to privacy,” which “gave a woman the right to decide what to do with her own body.”

Raised in an “abortion-free zone” in Washington, Schreck cringes when recalling her eager-to-please young self arguing in favor of a woman’s right to choose while making clear that this is a choice she would never make personally. But six years later while starring in a tiny Seattle production of “Miss Julie,” she slept with her costar, got pregnant and decided to have an abortion, a secret she kept from even her feminist mother.

This disclosure is at the heart of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” and it personalizes the theatrical discussion in a powerfully emotional way. Schreck bravely digs into the decades-old confusion and shame to shed light on the manifold ways reproductive freedom is bound up with privacy concerns.

She remembers taking the pregnancy test at a site that had pictures of fetuses on the wall and a poster that read, “Adoption Is a Beautiful Choice.” Raised to be “psychotically polite,” she found herself in a “nice-off” with the receptionist, who hugged her when she lied and said it would be good news if she found out she were pregnant.

It’s important to Schreck that we know she was on birth control when she got pregnant. She had been on birth control since she was 15, not because she was having sex at that age but because of fear. She worried irrationally about hot tubs and sperm, and she worried with reason about “a real attack.”

Being a woman means living in a state of anxiety not only about sexual assault and rape but also about the loss of judicial control. Schreck fills us in on violent episodes from her mother’s childhood, harrowing incidents that sound extreme but turn out to be disturbingly common as she reviews her family tree. The unspoken inheritance of this trauma can be felt in the gaps in Schreck’s monologues, the pockets of silences in which she sorts her feelings of sorrow, anger and frustration into a growing solidarity.

Statistics are cited: “One in three American women is sexually assaulted during their lifetime. One in four American women is raped during her lifetime. Ten million American women live in violent households. Forty million adult Americans grew up with domestic violence.”

The point of the show, Schreck makes clear, isn’t “to vilify men.” (“I love men,” she says. “I’m the daughter of a father.”) But there’s no getting around the abject failure of historically male-dominated courts to deal with women’s bodies.

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Congressman Barbara Jordan famously declared that her faith in the Constitution is “whole; it is complete; it is total.” Schreck is still a believer too but she now openly embraces her doubts and questions.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” concludes with a debate between Schreck and a bright teenager (Rosdely Ciprian alternates performances with Thursday Williams) over whether the Constitution should be defended or abolished and redrafted. The play loses some of its emotional force in the final stretch. (The structural looseness does wear thin at points.) But in bringing to the stage a youngster with the same passionate engagement of the 15-year-old Schreck, the show ends on a note of optimism that the battle for social progress is in confident hands.

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