“In spite of what some people think, this show is actually quite carefully constructed,” Heidi Schreck says about one-third of the way into her play What the Constitution Means to Me. Audiences might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. What the Consitution Means to Me begins as a recreation of Schreck’s teenage years, when she would give speeches on the constitution at American Legion halls for prize money, money that eventually paid for college. “It was thirty years ago and it was a state school,” she says after a moment of shock, “but thank you.” The problem is, Schreck’s packrat mother somehow threw out her speeches, so she has to resurrect them from memory, from her sense of herself at that age. Thus the references to the Salem Witch Trials and Patrick Swayze.
But eventually Schreck abandons this conceit, and the stern-faced American Legioneer turns into her friend and colleague Mike Iveson, a force of “positive male energy,” who supports her as she pores through constitutional and personal history, including a pattern of domestic violence that began, almost mythically, with her great-great-grandmother, who died at thirty-six of “melancholia.” In the final scene, Schreck welcomes Thursday Williams onstage, a teenager who is currently touring the constitution circuit, and the two debate an issue. The night I attended, Schreck argued for the abolition of the constitution, Williams for its retention. So at any given point during What the Constitution Means to Me, you may be hearing the imagined fifteen-year-old Schreck gush about the ninth amendment, you may hear the adult coming to terms with the violence in her family, or you may be watching a surprisingly confident teenager rattling off arguments for the value of the living document and against some sort of new, utopian constitution.
Unfortunately, this Frankenstein’s monster doesn’t quite cohere. While Williams is charming, her debate with Schreck smacks of gimmickry. Genuine, sublime moments of revelation—as when Schreck rhapsodizes about William O. Douglas’ use of the word “penumbra”—are far too rare. Attempts to personalize the document, which Schreck avoided as a teenager, are for the most part more general, less intimate in fact than her discussions about more abstract details of the constitution. And the politics, of course, are predictible, the relationship between performer and audience strictly preacher-choir. Though the president is never named, his influence on the court haunts the entire proceedings, and we get to boo and hiss at recognizable villains like Antonin Scalia. Perhaps this has a cathartic effect for some, but for me, in the context of a Broadway theater, the applause felt empty and self-congratulatory.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs through August 24th at the Helen Hayes Theater. 240 W. 44th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 40 minutes. No intermission.