True confession: The course I was most excited about during my time at NYU Law School – and the one that ultimately proved most boring – was Constitutional Law. In my gut, I always knew it probably wasn’t the document itself that was the problem (sorry, Professor Schwartz), but I am now totally sure that wasn’t the case after my third viewing of Heidi Schreck’s thought-provoking and deeply felt play What the Constitution Means to Me, now in a limited Broadway run at the Hayes Theater.
Thanks to this unusual show and Oliver Butler’s superb production – and thanks in no small measure to what is going on in this country – I’ve been thinking a lot about whether our Founding Fathers’ great document is a crucible or patchwork quilt (or neither); whether Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was right in finding a “penumbra” of rights, none of which is spelled out, in the hard-to-understand Ninth Amendment; and what kind of “human rights” any of us would have – especially women, LGBTQ people and immigrants – had Abraham Lincoln not pushed through the 14th Amendment. (Further, as Schreck nimbly points out, it’s the mingling of the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments that was used to find the right to privacy and create the key abortion-rights decision, Roe v. Wade.)
Somewhat surprisingly, all of these topics come up as we watch Scheck, an incredibly appealing actress, recreate her awkward but very bright 15-year-old self as she toured the country’s many American Legion posts (superbly designed by Rachel Hauck) to earn money for college by engaging in a debate contest about the Constitution.
Moreover, these issues also provide the text and subtext of most of the grown-up Heidi’s confessional monologues, many of which deal with the long history of truly shocking physical abuse (by men) that members of her mother’s family experienced, and some of which address the younger Heidi’s life-changing decision to get an abortion at the age of 21.
Equally importantly, the work outlines the many violations of women’s rights long inherent in the Constitution, which for much of its “life” did not deem females as actual human beings worthy of protection, as well as the gross miscarriages of justice that, to this day, allow horrific cases of domestic violence to still occur. As Schreck reminds us, it was a man’s world in 1787, and sad to say, it’s still a man’s world now.
If all of this has you thinking that the piece is a downer, or worse yet, a didactic lecture, please think again. The play is often quite funny. Schreck nimbly knows how to lighten the mood. Nor is it purely a solo show: Schreck’s pal, Mike Iveson, adds some levity in a small role, as well as adds some poignancy when he reveals a true-life incident that happened to him some years back. Finally, Schreck is joined onstage towards the show’s end by a real-life high school debate student (Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams alternate performances) for a very lively exchange about whether the Constitution should be abolished or “kept.”
Their back-and-forth “discussion” will not only have audiences pondering that same, important question long after they leave the building. Just as importantly, seeing such well-spoken, thoughtful young women tackle this heady subject should make all of us believe in the future of the country. And even though Schreck only alludes to what’s going on politically in this country during her 100 minutes on stage, What the Constitution Means to Me should also lead each of us to think about the extreme importance of voting in the 2020 election. At least, that’s what this must-see play means to me.
Okay, class dismissed.