BWW Review: Heidi Schreck's Inescapably Truthful WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME

Though designer Rachel Hauck's set for Heidi Schreck's inescapably truthful, yet eventually hopeful autobiographical performance piece WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME is based on the author/performer's memories of her home town's VFW Hall, it's likely that many audience members entering the auditorium of New York Theatre Workshop will take one look and be reminded of recent photos depicting Christine Blasey Ford's view of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

BWW Review: Heidi Schreck's Inescapably Truthful WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME
Heidi Schreck (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The three walls of the stage are covered with over 200 framed 8x10 photo portraits of middle-aged and older white men in their Veterans of Foreign Wars uniforms. As a 15-year-old, Schreck stood on many similarly decorated stages across the county, in front of all-male audiences and all-male judging panels, trained by her debate coach mother to earn enough money to pay for her entire college tuition by winning numerous contests where she delivered a short speech about the United States Constitution and then spoke extemporaneously on randomly chosen amendments. The inclusion of personal experiences was encouraged.

The bulk of the performance has Schreck playing her 15-year-old self, delivering a reconstructed version of the long-lost speech and responding to questions regarding the Fourteenth Amendment, with her present-day self, now in her 40s, adding her more experienced views.

"I remember being obsessed with theater, the Salem Witch Trials and Patrick Swayze," she says of her teenage years in Wenatchee, Washington. "The Apple Capital of the World. Conservative. Rural. An abortion-free zone."

Her younger self is a bolt of animated, imaginative energy, pouncing on every cue to begin speaking as if determined to display every spec of her accumulated knowledge that she can until her time runs out.

In her prepared speech, she describes the Constitution as a crucible; "a pot in which you put many different ingredients and boil them together until they transform into something else."

Though it may be a little jarring when this leads to her description of a childhood fantasy about "being attacked by a rapist or murderer" and making him stop by convincing him that she is a fellow human being, there's an entertaining precociousness to her presentation, which includes mentions of her one-time imaginary friend and of her admiration for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas' use of the word penumbra when speaking of the Ninth Amendment.

But it's that entertaining precociousness that might make you wonder if young Heidi's competitive persona is modeled to appeal to the sensibilities of conservative older men who prefer girls to be more sugar than spice.

Contemporary Schreck, while still very engaging, is the serious messenger of uncomfortable truths, often using instances of abuse involving the women of her family tree to lead into explorations of historic constitutional issues, sometimes highlighted by embarrassing audio clips of nine male Supreme Court judges determining the legal rights of women.

One clip, involving a 2005 case deciding whether or not police were required to respond to a woman's plea for protection against her violent husband, reveals debate over what the Founding Fathers meant when they used the word "shall."

In a related story, she tells of 17-year-old Heidi being alone in a car at night on an empty street with a boy she just met and being agreeable to his sexual advances because "it seemed like the polite thing to do." But looking back as an adult, though she is 99.9 percent sure that he would have accepted her refusal without incident, she's more certain that she agreed because her conscience was telling her to "stay alive."

It's an extraordinary balance of historical fact, legal analysis and personal experience presented with a warm, conversational tone. Though the piece is directed by Oliver Butler, you could find yourself wondering if Schreck's occasional moments where she needs to stop and compose herself are staged or natural occurrences. They are that realistic.

BWW Review: Heidi Schreck's Inescapably Truthful WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME
Rosdely Ciprian and Heidi Schreck
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Because a great deal of her text involves facts and statistics concerning violence against women ("More American women have been killed by violent male partners in the last century than Americans have been killed in wars, including 9/11."), Schreck explains that it was important to her to have "some positive male energy up here with me," so she shares the stage with Mike Iveson, who at first dutifully takes on the role of moderator/timekeeper in his VFW uniform, but then reveals a bit more of himself.

Reminding us that the United States Constitution was created by white male landowners for the purpose of securing rights for their fellow white male landowners, Schreck brings us to the final section of her work with the suggestion that in order to fairly represent the rights of all Americans, the document must either undergo major revisions or be scrapped altogether for a brand new one. She explains how our Constitution is primarily a negative rights document, describing what the government cannot do to its citizens, and points out how countries like Germany and South Africa have scraped their old constitutions for ones that emphasize positive rights, focused on what the government provides for its citizens.

At the performance this reviewer attended, 14-year-old Rosdely Ciprian was welcomed to the stage to debate Schreck on the issue of revising the Constitution or completely replacing it. She alternates performances with Thursday Williams and an audience member is selected to judge the outcome.

What is immediately noticeable about Ciprian is how different she is from Schreck's depiction of herself as a young teenager. Poised, succinct and speaking with authoritative tones, she is in no way precocious, just impressively quick-thinking and prepared. And now the audience can stop thinking of 15-year-old Heidi working hard to impress a roomful of white men from a past century and perhaps shed a few tears of joy and hopefulness because, even in these times that are displaying the worst side of America's collective patriarchal attitudes, young girls like Rosdely can stand in front of a diverse collection of people who are impressed by her brain and can imagine ever expanding opportunities in a world that will respect her simply for being a person.

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From This Author Michael Dale

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