Heidi Schreck doesn’t need to explain why a play called “What the Constitution Means to Me” demands deliberation in the nation’s capital. As a deeply personal investigation of the country’s founding principles, the show is uniquely suited for a telling before federal lawmakers, policy wonks and concerned constituents alike.
Schreck thus planned to bring “Constitution,” which she wrote and stars in, to Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre this past spring, having performed the play in various iterations over the past decade. But after an off-Broadway run last fall drew raves — Hillary Clinton, for one, hailed it as “an empowering call to consider what it means to be a citizen” — Schreck struck while the iron was hot, launching a Broadway run in March and putting her D.C. aspirations on the back burner.
“I didn’t have a lot of hopes for it being successful on Broadway, but at that point there were, like, 12 new plays opening and none of them were by women,” Schreck says. “I was just like, ‘I have to say yes to this, even if it closes in a week.’ ”
The show didn’t close in a week. In fact, it didn’t shutter after its initially announced 12-week stint, or even after its six-week extension into mid-July. Along the way, “Constitution” earned Tony nominations for best play and best actress, and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It wasn’t until a second extension concluded on Aug. 24 that the play wrapped up its Broadway run.
Following a sojourn to the Oregon coast to catch her breath, Schreck has at last brought “What the Constitution Means to Me” to the District, for a run at the Kennedy Center through Sept. 22.
“Honestly,” Schreck says, “it’s a dream come true to bring this piece to the heart of the nation.”
“Constitution” opens with Schreck, 47, embodying her 15-year-old self, who traveled the country competing in the American Legion Oratory Contest with a speech titled “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution.” But what begins as a re-creation of that idealistic argument morphs into an indictment of the document, with Schreck shedding her youthful persona and addressing the audience from her more sobering middle-aged perspective.
“It’s this document that affects everything that we do, but it’s sort of built in a way where only the experts are meant to understand it,” says co-star Mike Iveson, who plays an American Legion moderator before, like Schreck, excising the artifice and speaking as his current self. “Heidi is attacking this impenetrable document and just trying to humanize it, and that impulse resonates with a lot of people.”
Schreck’s deconstruction comes with both humor and indignation. Framing the Constitution within darker chapters from her life, the lives of the women in her family and the country at large, she articulates the ways in which the document fails to provide women with essential human protections. And the play also navigates the injustices faced by immigrants, people of color and the LGBTQ community.
“Like a lot of people right now, I really find myself vacillating between hope and determination and the desire to change things, and a feeling of despair and fear,” Schreck says. “I think doing this show carries me to both of those extremes.”
While “Constitution” is mostly scripted, Schreck brings spontaneity to each performance. Her interactions with Iveson are often spur-of-the-moment choices, and the show concludes with a partially improvised debate, judged by an audience member, between Schreck and New York City high school student Rosdely Ciprian.
“I don’t ever really know when Heidi is going to toss something new in,” Iveson says. “Her emotional journey through the show changes night to night.”
Schreck continues to tweak the script based on post-show interactions with audience members. When legal scholars offered advice on how to make a certain point more nuanced, she incorporated that feedback. She also swapped in different pronouns after being told that her language could be more gender-inclusive. Ruth Bader Ginsburg even had a note that Schreck integrated after the Supreme Court justice saw the show.
“I’ve learned things as I’ve gone along. That’s been the most thrilling part, actually,” Schreck says. “Sometimes I get accused by people of having an agenda, but I don’t. Over the course of working on this play for 10 years, I’ve just tried to understand the document and the way it’s shaped my life more and more deeply.”
Soon, Schreck will have one more reason to reinvent her work: After the Kennedy Center run, she will hand her story to a new actor for “Constitution’s” national tour, which launches in January.
Although Schreck wants to return to the role down the road (she’s especially eager to perform in her hometown of Wenatchee, Wash.), the emotional and physical toll of performing eight times a week has left her ready for a respite. But Schreck does plan on being actively involved in the “Constitution” tour’s rehearsal — amending the script to illustrate the new actor’s perspective — and traveling with the show from venue to venue, not unlike the way her 15-year-old self bounced around those American Legion halls.
“The play is evolving, much like our Constitution was designed to do,” Schreck says. “I think we should take advantage of the fact that it was designed to do that a little bit more.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; through Sept. 22, $49-$169.