Okay, I’m going to start now. I’m going to perform the rest of the piece as my 15-year-old self, but I am not going to do anything special to achieve that effect. So here I am. I’m 15.
At that age in 1989, Schreck would compete in nationwide speech tournaments sponsored by the American Legion that were on debates about the Constitution of the United States of America. The prizes were college scholarships and her successes at these events paid for her education.
We performed these speeches to audiences of older— mostly white— men and in my memory, they were all smoking cigars. Although, in retrospect, I think that can’t be true. But I would love it if you would be the men for me. You are all the men. Thank you.
Comparing the Constitution to a crucible was her focus. The speech is a witty ramble that combines history, opinion and pertinent details. Dred Scott v. Sandford, Justice William O. Douglas, The Equal Protection Clause and Roe v. Wade are analyzed. Audio recordings of Supreme Court justices discussing cases are heard. Throughout, autobiographical revelations are imparted.
We learn of her German great-grandmother who was a mail-order bride and died in a mental asylum at the age of 36 of “melancholia.” How her young widowed grandmother became a waitress and remarried a handsome barber who physically abused her and sexually assaulted their children. Schreck’s abortion, mental state and a traumatic sexual incident as a young woman are recounted with searing candor. Her riveting performance conveys the comedy and tragedy of the human condition cleverly fused with documentary and current events. What the Constitution Means to Me succeeds as a novel personal exploration but gets sidetracked by ambitiousness.
Also appearing in the show is the delightfully deadpan actor Mike Iveson who moderates the event as an American Legion official in comically appropriate regalia.
Since 1938, the American Legion has awarded over three million dollars in college scholarships. Past winners have included several politicians and genuine celebrities including former presidential candidate Alan Keyes and Moneyline host Lou Dobbs.
Mr. Iveson later on drops his character and states that he is gay and recounts incidents of homophobia. As heartfelt as these asides are, they don’t quite jell with the rest of the show. After Schreck beautifully concludes her narrative there is a drawn out finale where a teenager joins her to debate whether to abolish The Constitution. It’s a rotating role and at the performance under review the eager and charming high school senior Thursday Williams portrayed this character (alternating with Rosdely Ciprian). This portion isn’t well integrated with the rest of the presentation either. However, audience members receive a small paperback copy of The Constitution.
Director Oliver Butler’s smooth staging yields momentum and plentiful creative imagery. Jen Schriever’s lighting design is a dramatic accompaniment with its stark brightness and crisp fade outs. Musical bits and effects are finely realized by sound designer Sinan Zafar. Iverson’s military-style getup, Schreck’s everyday wear and Ms. Williams’ school attire are artfully rendered by costume designer Michael Krass.
As the production winds down, Schreck implores the audience to forget the set and imagine blankness and she wishes that there was a coup de théâtre to achieve this. This plea is a commentary on Rachel Hauck’s elaborate scenic design that represents an American Legion hall. It’s a large configuration of wood paneling, a myriad of framed vintage photographs of organization members, weathered carpeting and ballroom-style chairs. Visually accomplished, it’s a problematic distraction from a compelling tale.
What the Constitution Means to Me’s solid and resonant core of Heidi Schreck’s writing and performing transcends its flaws.
What the Constitution Means to Me (extended through November 4, 2018)
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-460-5475 or visit http://www.nytw.org
Running time: 105 minutes with no intermission