Before the year runs out, I want to add my voice to the chorus of cheers urging you to see Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, an intimate show with a pulsing brain, a fierce heart and a contagious passion for it subjects, which are, not unexpectedly, Heidi Schreck and the United States Constitution. Though not necessarily in that order.
Fortunately, Schreck – a playwright, screenwriter and actor – is such an engaging storyteller that you aren’t likely to realize how deeply her play has affected you till long after you’ve left the theater. I’ve now seen it twice – first during its initial run at the New York Theatre Workshop, and again at the tiny Greenwich House Theater, where it’s transferred for an extended run – and both times I found it refusing to leave me alone. It’s a bit of sleight-of-hand – charismatic storytelling that diverts our attention with amusements while slipping in a cartography of memoir, political science, American history and multiple waves of feminism. It looks like a dime but sticks like a dollar, one of the very best shows of the year.
The taste-free decor by Rachel Hauck is by design. The setting is every small-town outpost of the American Legion, the pecan-paneled walls punctuated with photos of dead veterans, and a podium flanked by Old Glory and the legion banner. Down stage left are a plain desk and chair.
These blue-highway gathering places are where Schreck spent much of her adolescence as the pride of Wenatchee, Washington, exercising her debating skills in Legion-sponsored events dedicated to bringing the Constitution alive. Her winnings, she explains, eventually paid for her college education. Coincidentally, it brought her up close and personal across a wide swath of the fly-over, where she developed encyclopedic knowledge of the articles and amendments, along with keen insight into the real ways that document affects actual living beings.
It also allows her to share a harrowing family story that includes rape, incest and abuse, as well as a personal odyssey that took her from the Pacific Northwest to this stage. After her introduction, she turns the proceedings over to an officious looking referee sitting at the desk (Mike Iveson). “Good morning,” he says to us. “Welcome to the regional finals of the American Legion Oratory Contest here at LCW Legion Post Number Ten in Wenatchee, Washington.” The contestants will open with a personal account of how their lives have been affected by the Constitution, and then draw from a jar an amendment to explain and defend.
Schreck’s unseen nemesis is one Becky Lee Dobbins, a Kansas girl who inevitably describes the Constitution as “a patchwork quilt,” a characterization that young Heidi finds obnoxious, preferring to call it “a crucible.” Her metaphor extends through the rest of the 90 intermission-less minutes, as Schreck navigates us through her family story, which includes breaking the cycle of horrors and understanding the agonizingly slow process by which a flawed, exclusional work of vision and compromise morphed ever so agonizingly slowly to enfranchise African Americans, Native Americans and – my gosh, how recent it was! – female Americans.
Under Oliver Butler’s crisply astute direction, Schreck weaves her tales with a meticulous offhandedness that’s pleasingly engaging, a quality that brought to mind Spalding Gray, another monologist who tricked you into a mindset of spontaneity. Trick or no trick, it left me gasping at several points of the show, when a shocking revelation erupted through an otherwise freewheeling narrative.
At the end of the show, Schreck brings on a girl who, as she was, is a middle-school rhetorician (a poised and polished Thursday Williams on the night of my most recent visit) to debate the question of whether the Constitution should continue its stumbling journey to inclusion or be scrapped altogether in favor of a fresh start.
For guidance or reassurance or some eye-opening info for measuring the play against the document, everyone in the audience gets a mini-Constitution to take home. As I said, what I took home was not the little book but the crunchy, inspiring show itself, as it turned – and continues to turn – over and over in my head. Becky Lee Dobbins, eat your heart out.