BWW Review: Broadway Comes to Kennedy Center with WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME
It's common for the Kennedy Center to be a stop for national tours of current or recently closed Broadway shows, but it's a bit of a rarity for it to be a stop for a show that's truly "direct from Broadway." There's no misleading advertising here. While Heidi Schreck's highly personal Tony Award-nominated play What the Constitution Means to Me will embark on a national tour in the near future, the Kennedy Center's offering is unique because it stars the original Broadway cast, including Tony Award nominee Ms. Schreck herself. To that end, the timely show, directed by Oliver Butler, is absolutely worth a look.
Ms. Schreck, at the outset of the fourth-wall-breaking play, notes that "recent events" have compelled her to think more about the Constitution - something she did quite a bit as a teenager traveling across the country to participate in competitions for high school students to display their knowledge of the document and explain their personal connection to it. She compared the Constitution to a Crucible (naturally, she was obsessed with witches...) as a teenager, but she's rethinking her perspective today. While she won many a competition - and thus was able to pay her own way to college - she struggled somewhat in making a compelling, personal argument about what the document meant to her. (In the play, Heidi recreates her speeches and portrays younger self for much of the first half of the performance and then begins to speak as herself in present day for the rest of it.) As an adult, she's ready to explore her more personal connection to the document, and Amendment 14 specifically, in a way she was not prepared to do as a young teenager.
At this point - with some help from fellow actor Mike Iveson who portrays, at several points, a judge/emcee for the competition - Heidi passionately delves into a harrowing tale of generations of violence against women in her family. She shares how the document that she loved so much as a teenager did not protect the women she loved (and many others like them) from these experiences, or ensure those who perpetrated violence against them were brought to true justice. This leads into the third element of the play - a debate between adult Heidi and a tremendously talented current high school sophomore, Rosdely Ciprian, about whether the Constitution should be abolished and replaced with a more positive rights document or retained as is. An audience member is asked to declare a winner (yes, this show has the dreaded audience participation element, but it's not as painfully detracting as it could be).
While I appreciated Ms. Schreck's passion for the subject matter, natural stage presence, and engaging demeanor, I felt that at times I was witnessing either an academic lecture or a personal rant - sometimes switching from one to the other in the span of seconds - on Rachel Hauck's theme-appropriate set. At the end of the play, I understood Ms. Schreck's overall message and why she took the structural approach she did, but - at least for me - it was a bit of a slog to get to that point. While a dramaturg (Sarah Lunnie) is listed in the program, the script could use additional cutting. This is no more apparent than when Mike Iveson (though a good actor in his own right) takes center stage and shares his story. He explains why Heidi chose to include this moment, but I didn't think the rationale (not to be spoiled here) was particularly satisfactory. Thematic messages and opinions are also repeated to the point where one might feel like they're being beaten over the head.
I mostly understand the audience and critical acclaim this show has received from an intellectual standpoint - especially given the time we live in today -but it unfortunately didn't grab me the way it has many other people, including other reviewers. Maybe with a different personal experience in my own life or those I am close to, I would have felt differently, but this is certainly not to detract from what Ms. Schreck wrote and the emotional performance she delivers.
Running Time: Nearly two hours with no intermission.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME plays the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Eisenhower Theater - located at 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through September 22, 2019. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.