Washington, DC, is one of the few cities in the country where it’s not uncommon for large groups of people to come together to spend two hours deep in conversation about the constitution and its relevance to the modern world on a Friday night. Rarely, however, are these prosaic gatherings of politicos and pundits anywhere near as rousing or affecting as Heidi Schreck’s much-lauded Broadway (and beyond) production of her show What the Constitution Means to Me now at the Kennedy Center—easily the most persuasive argument in recent memory that deeply personal art can have both mass appeal and impact.
Much ink has been spilled about the quality of the New York productions (and rightfully so), but nothing quite compares to seeing it for yourself. Perhaps an unlikely choice for Broadway (it’s very nearly a one-person show), it nevertheless went on to rack up plaudits including two Tony Award nominations, an Obie Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, recognition as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and more.
It also made the news in July when it recouped its initial $2.5 million investment, one of the few shows on Broadway this year to do so. This led to a wave of think pieces about how woman-led art can be commercially viable (I feel like this has been proven approximately a million times in recent years and if you’re the kind of luddite who doesn’t believe it at this point, you’re being willfully ignorant and nothing is going to change your mind… but I digress).
What the Constitution Means to Me closes September 22, 2019. Details and tickets
In form, What the Constitution Means to Me is refreshingly original, keeping the audience on its toes the whole time. We begin in a self-enclosed set meant to resemble the almost universally recognizable American Legion halls spread all over the country (countless after-prom breakfasts and Rotary Club meetings came rushing back to me upon entering the Eisenhower Theater, thanks to Rachel Hauck’s uncanny scenic design).
It’s here that Schreck, speaking directly to the audience, as she often does, informs us that as a teenager, she toured halls just like this to earn scholarship money for college by competing in extemporaneous speaking events centered on the constitution. What follows begins as an attempt to recreate the winning speech she gave as a 15-year-old—and while things stay on track for a while, they soon dissolve into something more real, raw, and interesting.
She is joined on stage by Mike Iveson, a stand-in for the cigar-smoking, older white men who pretty much universally made up the staff, audience members, and judges of these events.
Schreck has been performing this show in one form or another for years, and yet it’s anything but stale. The acuity with which she can improvise and banter freely with the audience within the deftly crafted structure she’s created for the piece is nothing less than spectacular. During the particular performance I attended, when she asked if anyone from the audience was from the tiny town in Washington state that she grew up in—clearly a question that 99 percent of the time is rhetorical—a woman in the mezzanine shouted that she was in fact from that town and that Schreck’s own mother had been her drama teacher. Clearly caught off guard, but only for a moment, she wove little asides to this audience member into the rest of the show.
The length of the time she’s been performing the piece has given her the opportunity to comment within the play on how things have changed since she began, keeping the show dynamic and relevant rather than fixed in time.
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I won’t give too much more away about how things progress since the surprise of how the piece unfolds is a large part of the joy of the experience, but Schreck masterfully spins for the audience a tale of personal and political (and personal-as-political) experience that’s rooted in more passion, rage, trauma, and love—for a country, a document, and for her own self, as imperfectly flawed as all of those things are—than any typical speech about the governing document of the American experiment has ever had before.
And when 14-year-old actor and parliamentary debater Rosdely Ciprian joins Schreck and Iveson on stage, well, just try not to be thoroughly charmed by her overwhelming charisma and surety. If Ciprian is any indication, the kids, as they say, are all right.
It’s probably trite at this point to say that What the Constitution Means to Me should be required viewing for all U.S. history and government classes, but, even in a city that lives and breathes American politics, I have never been so thoroughly and gorgeously reminded that the debates we have aren’t just about a piece of parchment in the National Archives or hypothetical situations divorced from reality, but actual human lives. The play goes on tour—sadly for the rest of the country, without Schreck—in January, and it doesn’t feel hyperbolic to say that if every American could see this show, our current political situation might feel a lot less bleak.
What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler. Featuring: Heidi Schreck, Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson, and Ben Beckley. Scenic designer: Rachel Hauck. Costume designer: Michael Krass. Lighting designer: Jen Schriever. Sound designer: Sinan Refik Zafar. Production stage manager: Terri K. Kohler. Produced by The Clubbed Thumb, True Love Productions, and New York Theatre Workshop. Reviewed by John Bavoso.