Where more aptly than in Washington would the words of the Constitution be an applause line?
The warm reception for Section 1 of the 14th Amendment — the one affirming the right to citizenship for “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” — occurs as writer-performer Heidi Schreck lights up the Kennedy Center with the glowing virtuosity of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Merely reciting that quintessential definition of the entitlement to be a part of this country triggers an emotional reaction in audiences these days, because so much of what so many of us believe about being American is under sustained attack. And Schreck, who has brought the play to the Eisenhower Theater directly from its wildly successful Broadway engagement, proves once again to be a funny, wise and wonderfully compassionate distiller of our collective values.
Washington is an essential stop for this piece — a loose re-creation, filled with digressions both hilarious and wrenching, of Schreck’s youthful participation in contests sponsored by the American Legion that challenged students’ knowledge of our lodestar legal document. Accompanied under Oliver Butler’s sterling direction by the unsung Mike Iveson, playing a legionnaire quizmaster, and an enchantingly poised Rosdely Ciprian, who turns 15 this week, Schreck and her play occupy the Eisenhower stage with a richness that many a larger-cast production would envy.
That’s because the essence of “What the Constitution Means to Me” is an issue of such profound implication for an America that has always seen itself as better, freer and more just than other nations. Schreck reveals, through both incisive commentary and personal recollection, how the Constitution has fallen far short of ideal for so many of our countrymen, who should have been able to find comfortable communion with the 14th and other amendments.
Or more to the point, our countrywomen. Schreck’s focus is to underline the also-ran status of women in the execution of the Constitution’s supposedly universal coverage. The piece works because her observations ring true. The women in her family, which goes back generations in the Pacific Northwest, suffered greatly; Schreck provides the nuanced legal linkage to reveal how and why they were viewed — or even viewed themselves — as expendable.
You don’t have to be in law school to follow the connections Schreck makes, between the privileged class of white men the Framers chiefly had in mind and the lesser status of those they didn’t: those who happened to be female, black or Native American. Conversely, in the long monologue sections of the play, Schreck doesn’t attempt to lay waste to men, or guilt them out. As she puts it, in a variety of amusing ways, she adores men. It’s just taking them a long time to share fully the bounty of liberty the Constitution mandates.
I’ve now sat through “What the Constitution Means to Me” four times, the first occasion at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, twice at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre and now at the Kennedy Center. In each venue, the theater capacity has gotten bigger — and so has Schreck’s performance. Her recitation comes across as intimate and rife with feeling: Repeatedly over the hour and 45 minutes she stands before us, Schreck seems overcome and has to pause. If the trembling is acting, as she describes the beatings her grandmother Betty endured at the hands of her violent second husband, then she’s had one over me. Not that I’d begrudge it if it were artifice. Because the underlying anguish undoubtedly is real.
Then again, stretches of “What the Constitution Means to Me” are surprisingly funny, as when Schreck describes her apoplexy at leaving (as an adult) a treasured stuffed animal on a plane. Or the recording she plays of a U.S. Supreme Court session from the mid-1960s, in which the nine mortified and ill-prepared men on the bench try to discuss feminine hygiene and contraception.
It is no small feat to project across the expanse of the Eisenhower and its 1,164 seats the range of emotion Schreck summons, or to open oneself so rawly, evening after evening. The sweet coda she adds to the show each night might strike some as superfluous. But the debate in which she engages with young Rosdely seems absolutely vital. Schreck wants us to engage not only with her own past, but also with what might be in store in our future — a constitutional future that should tightly wrap bright young women such as Rosdely in all of its empowering precepts. I’m grateful to Schreck for this reminder of the potential of America. For she has managed to reaffirm what the Constitution means to me.
What the Constitution Means to Me, by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler. Set, Rachel Hauck; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Sinan Refik Zafar. About 1 hour 45 minutes. $49-$169. Through Sept. 22 at the Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.