WHAT "What the Constitution Means to Me"
WHEN | WHERE Through July 21, Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St.
INFO From $49; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE A personal, yet politically charged, examination of the nation's most revered document.
Heidi Schreck put herself through college with winnings from speech competitions in which she demonstrated her knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. Some 30 years later, those speeches are still paying off — they’ve landed her on Broadway.
"What the Constitution Means to Me," her deeply personal and highly political play at the Helen Hayes Theater (the limited run was just extended six weeks, through July 21), is part civics lesson, part TED Talk, part memoir. Ultimately it poses more questions — serious questions — than it answers.
Schreck, a writer and actor on TV shows including "Billions" and "Nurse Jackie," relives her youth with an irrepressible, contagious energy that demands attention (and explains why she won so many of those contests). The play, directed by Oliver Butler, is set in a sterile room with rows of photos (all men, this is important) lining the wood-paneled walls at a nondescript American Legion Hall in Schreck's hometown of Wenatchee, Washington. "It's not a naturalistic representation," Schreck says, explaining how scenic designer Rachel Hauck reconstructed it from her dreams, "like one of those crime victim drawings."
Thinking back to the days when she spoke of the revered founding document as a "crucible" that represents "a severe test of patience or belief," Schreck first delivers a prepared speech that requires her to relate the Constitution to her own life. But she really gets into it when asked for an extemporaneous analysis of the one of the Reconstruction Amendments that defines the rights of citizens. This allows her to cover a litany of hot-button issues, many relating to what she sees as the Constitution's intended denial of women's rights: voting rights, reproductive rights (she plays an eye-opening exchange between several justices over birth control), the right to be protected from domestic violence. And, yes, the story gets heartbreakingly personal.
It's easy to think of this as a one-woman play, but Schreck is not alone. Mike Iveson is appropriately understated but gets some good laughs as the Legionnaire moderator, charged with keeping the young speaker on track and on time as she dissects the document she both cherishes and questions.
And Schreck ends the piece by bringing out a high school debater, explaining that she wanted to meet young women doing the same sort of thing today. I saw Thursday Williams, a senior who, among other impressive credentials, worked last summer at the State Supreme Court in Queens as a part of the Sonia & Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program. The two stage a biting debate on a question Schreck clearly wants people to take with them as they exit: "Should we abolish the Constitution?" Here's the best part: She lets one audience member decide the winner.