What the Constitution Means to Me
At the age of fifteen, Heidi Schreck remembers “in addition to being terrifically turned on,” to also being enthralled by “witch trials, theatre, and Patrick Swayze.” As then a high school sophomore in Weeatache, Washington, young Heidi traveled in a circuit around the U.S. to the hallowed walls of American Legion halls in order to compete in oratory contests where she entered debates on the American Constitution – winning enough money to put herself through college.
That fascination with the Constitution and the love of a good argument under pressure evidently never went away as she became a playwright, actor, and screenwriter. So much is the case that she premiered in 2017 at Clubbed Thumb’s off-Broadway festival, Summerworks, a two-week run of a play about those Constitutional debates, throwing in a parallel history of the last three generations of the women in her family and how her and their lives reflect the importance of certain of the Constitution’s Amendments. Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents Heidi Schreck and her What the Constitution Means to Me in its West Coast premiere, a work she claims up front “is not a play,” warning the audience, “I’m not sure what will happen now.”
As soon as Heidi Schreck walks into a replicated small-town, American Legion hall decked with the portraits of decorated service vets (all men, all white) – set designed by Rachel Hauck – her smiling, easy-going, informal personality lights up the entire stage. But there is an edge and intensity immediately noticeable as her pace quickens and voice volume rises. It soon becomes clear as she delves into her immense reserve of a lay person’s knowledge about our Constitution and its history that the passion she carries for its contents and their implications on her life is deep and felt to the core of her being.
Picking back up on her teen fascination of the Salem witch trials, Ms. Schreck explains that the metaphor she likes to use for how she sees the Constitution – having such a central metaphor was one of the Legion’s contest requirements – is that of a ‘crucible.” For her, the honored document is like a “witch’s caldron,” “a collective act of visualizations,” or “spells.”
This all comes out as she reenacts one of the pressured speeches she once gave at the age of fifteen, a seven-minute prepared oration followed by extemporaneously speaking on one assigned amendment. While a stern-voiced, never-flinching veteran is on stage to be her strict time-keeper (played by the performer’s real-life friend and fellow actor, Danny Wolohan), we soon begin to see that the time limits will not restrain this eager bulldog from barreling through all the details she intends to relay to us about her views. In addition, she liberally takes us on side trips into her own upbringing and the lives and histories of the prior three generations of her family.
Heidi, the fifteen year old, focuses in her speech on the 9th Amendment, one added in 1791 because the Founding Fathers realized, according to our informed speaker, that they could not include in this defining document all the specific rights that Americans should be allowed to have. Thus, they reserved those unnamed rights, including those not even imaginable at that time, through this addition.
The excitement of both the 15-year-old Heidi and her now-adult self becomes ever more acute as she relates the importance of this particular amendment to long-later Supreme Court decisions, such as Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973), whereby women gained the rights of contraception and abortion based on the right of privacy -- a right later justices decided the 9th Amendment protects. (Ms. Schreck’s side bar of what may have behind five of the nine 1965 justices’ decisions to allow birth control is an eye-brow-raising piece of historical gossip that may be the one sure thing everyone in the audience carries away from the evening’s lecture-like play.)
As Heidi proceeds through her somewhat-timed speech and moves into ‘extemporaneously’ talking about the 14th Amendment and its five clauses, more and more stories about the difficult history of her own family’s women spill out -- women who were often abused and/or witnessed abuse. These difficult episodes are peppered into her explanations of the Amendment’s meanings and implications, with the clear conclusion by our playwright that “violence against women has been baked in historically” – not only in world history and our country’s history, but in her own family as one microcosm of that shameful heritage.
The side steps the playwright frequently takes have mixed-effect results in keeping some sense of focus and in building to some overall conclusions and learning from the evening. Stories about her favorite sock monkey and her inherited way of crying in bent-over heaves are cute and funny but add little to ‘what the constitution means to me.’ The same is true when she turns over the podium to Danny, who goes from a stone-faced, staring blankly vet/speech judge to the actor himself telling about a childhood memory with his father – a story moving but totally unrelated to the evening’s focus.
A decision by Heidi Shreck to bring a third person to the stage is much more relevant to both the topic, its current timeliness, and to the original, 15-year-old whom she was when giving her speeches. A local, superstar, high school girl joins the playwright/performer in order to debate her on the question, “Should we abolish the Constitution of the U.S?” St. Mary’s College High School sophomore, Anaya Matthews, is definitely trained and accomplished in the art of formal debating. Her electric charisma on stage, her impressive knowledge of the Constitution, and her readied willingness to take impassioned stands making firm arguments against those of Heidi Schreck give us a glimpse of what the actual 15-year-old Heidi may have in fact looked like. (Wisdom Kunitz of James Logan High School alternates this role with Ms. Matthews.)
Unfortunately, the way the two end their joint time on stage and thus the entire evening’s performance turns out to be frankly silly, totally off subject, and an energy deflator. Evidently there are a variety of ways the playwright and her invited guest may choose on the spot to end the ninety-minute non-play. The opening night’s choice certainly is one I would suggest tossing in the future.
Heidi Schrek and her director, Oliver Butler, have chosen a unique way to open discussion about our Constitution, its history of amendments, and their impacts on our current rights. There is definitely an underlying warning that further amendments or new interpretations of present amendments by an evolving-to-the-right Court may undermine rights we now have – especially those of women. However, some of their decisions of how the evening is structured and what has been included tangential to the core conversation in the end weaken, in my opinion, the potential and lasting impact as well as the probability of follow-up conversations by audience members.
Rating: 3 E
What the Constitution Means to Me continues through June 17, 2018 at the Peet’s Theatre of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photos by Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre