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New York City Theater

"What the Constitution Means to Me"
Helen HayesTheater

Who would have thought the U. S. Constitution was fodder for laughs? In Heidi Schreck’s odd, affectionate, touching, idealistic and thoughtful “What the Constitution Means to Me,” humor vies with exasperation in detailing the pluses and minuses of one of the country’s founding documents. Challenging our perceptions, it dares citizens to seek redemption for past sins as well as offering a positive path forward.

It begins when Schreck, the principal character in her own, three-character play, was 15 years old and vying for college scholarship money by entering American Legion competitions. (Rachel Hauck’s set realistically recreates a Legion hall, its walls filled with portraits of men.) As a contestant, Schreck had seven minutes to speak on how the Constitution affected her life, followed by an extemporaneous discussion of an amendment, chosen at random.

Obsessed about witches and actor Patrick Swayze, the adolescent Schreck suggests, in a speech titled “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution,” the document’s sensuality. She calls it a “living, warm-blooded and steamy,” cauldron “in which you put many different ingredients and boil them together until they transfer into something else.”

Her favorite amendment, Number Nine, guarantees people’s rights. “The enumeration . . . of certain rights,” it says. “shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Thus, just because the document does not list brushing one’s teeth as a right, for example, does not mean that the action is banned.

Doffing her sunny yellow jacket, Schreck becomes her adult self, revisiting her speech 30 years later. Schreck thereupon gets to the heart of her play: the use of the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee equal protection and due process. Along with the Ninth, its clauses justify women’s ability to vote and have an abortion, plus immigrant, civil and same-sex rights. Detailing the hardscrabble lives of her female relatives, their fights against abuse and abandonment, Schreck leads us to a final debate with a high-schooler on whether the Constitution as we have it, should be abolished or kept and improved.

Under Oliver Butler’s subtle direction, Mike Iveson is a resolute Legionnaire with his own revelations, while Thursday Williams is a passionate debater. It’s a cinch exiting theatergoers talk not about how to get home but what the evening means to them. Thanks to the charming, intelligent Heidi Schreck, flaws and strengths have been explored, minds opened, and fresh air let in to illuminate a not-yet-moribund document.

--David A. Rosenberg
April 7, 2019

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