New York Theatre Workshop
79 East Fourth St. between Second & Third Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 28, $79
The atmosphere was thick with foreboding as the audience entered New York Theatre Workshop on October 5 to see Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. Earlier that day, the Judiciary Committee had voted to advance the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice to the Senate floor. But it didn’t take long for Schreck, acknowledging the situation without specific details or names, to establish a cathartic relationship that had everyone laughing, adding substantial doses of hope to offset our lurking fear. When she was a fifteen-year-old girl in the “abortion-free zone” of Wenatchee, Washington, in the mid-1980s, Schreck earned money for college by participating in debates in American Legion Halls about the Constitution. She eventually decided to adapt that experience into a primarily one-woman show, moving back and forth between her current self, a Brooklyn-based actress and writer (Nurse Jackie, I Love Dick, The Consultant), and her past, as she explores her burgeoning sexuality, her family’s history of mental illness, and her personal connection to the Constitution. But her focus is on the “living document” that was written in 1787 and ratified the next year. “Is it protecting us, or is it the source of our problems?” she asks.
Schreck, whose inspirations include such other autofiction writers as Chris Kraus and Lisa Kron, the 1950 book Your Rugged Constitution, and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, addresses the audience directly throughout, either as twenty-first-century theatergoers or representatives of the older white men who attended the American Legion debates (as well as the older white men who still dominate Congress?). Rachel Hauck’s set consists of a few chairs and small tables, a central podium, and three sides of a wall displaying more than a hundred framed photographs of legionnaires, uniformly white men in caps. Jen Schriever’s lighting stays on through much of the show, maintaining a close relationship between audience and performers. Schreck concentrates primarily on the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, dealing with enumerated rights and equal protection under the law, examining them from a distinctly feminist point of view. “When I started making this ten years ago, I had fundamental faith in this document. One I think most of us share,” she says. “I knew it was born in corruption. I knew that the people who made it were slave owners, who didn’t think women and people of color were fully human. But I believed in the genius of this document, in its ability to evolve over time. Now I wonder, though, what does it mean that the document will not protect us from the violence of men?” It’s a poignant, powerful question that is ripped right from the headlines in an ever-more-divided country where even the validity of sexual assault seems to be based on party affiliation. Schreck also offers ideas for a better future. “There are two kinds of rights: negative rights and positive rights,” she explains. “Negative rights protect us from the government taking our stuff, locking us up, killing us. Positive rights include things like the right to a free education, and in some countries to health care, and a basic standard of living. . . . Why shouldn’t we have a positive rights constitution that actively protects all of us?”
Over the course of ninety-plus minutes, Schreck openly and honestly shares intimate moments from her life, often receiving understanding nods of agreement and acknowledgment from the audience. She never changes her outfit or her voice, making it occasionally difficult to tell which part of her life she is talking about, somewhere between the ages of fifteen and forty-seven. At one point she defends the play’s structure, arguing that a critic who claimed it was flawed is just plain wrong. There are indeed a few minor structural flaws, but that doesn’t prevent the show from being vastly entertaining, thought-provoking, and damn important. She is joined onstage by Mike Iveson (The Sound & the Fury, Plenty), who at first portrays an American Legion Hall moderator but has a surprise in store later, and either Thursday Williams or Rosdley Ciprian, two high school students who engage in a live debate with Schreck. Director Oliver Butler (The Amateurs, The Open House) keeps it grounded; although there is a basic script, there is also plenty of room for extemporaneous speech. And the final topic, about whether the Constitution should be preserved as is, updated, or abolished, could not be more timely as chatter about a constitutional crisis follows the current administration. Perhaps Schreck should present her work in front of a joint session of Congress. Not that it would do any good these days. Yet there is hope to be found in such future political stars as Williams and Ciprian.