Stages

Review: What the Constitution Means to Me Sheds Light on the Penumbra of Law and the Lives of Women

Maria Dizzia as Heidi. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What the Constitution Means to Me is partly a lesson in the glories of the 14th Amendment and partly the personal story of domestic abuse against women by the men in playwright Heidi Schreck’s family. The victims were her female relatives—starting with her great-great grandmother.

Schreck created her stage persona—a lively, mostly solo performance—off Broadway and continued it in the highly successful six-month Broadway run last year. Maria Dizzia recreates Heidi successfully in the production now on stage at the Broadway Playhouse, presented by Broadway in Chicago. It’s a heartfelt and informative show, with moments of laughter and sorrow as Schreck/Dizzia relives her years as a teenaged debater. The story moves briskly, hopping back and forth from landscape to minutiae at a madcap pace. Oliver Butler, who directed the earlier iterations, directs the traveling production.

Heidi tells her personal story in fragments throughout the evening. Her great-great grandfather bought her great-great grandmother “from a catalog,” and brought her here from Germany to become his wife. She was 19, suffered spousal abuse, and by 36, she died from “melancholy.” Heidi feels some survivor’s guilt about this. And she has had to come to terms with the fact that the Constitution has failed to protect her family members from intimate partner violence over the decades.

Heidi performs both as her present-day self and as 15-year-old Heidi as she views Constitutional issues such as immigration, reproductive rights and what it means to be an American citizen. Mike Iveson plays the WWII veteran/Legion member moderating the debate and becomes himself later in the play, with comments on sexuality and masculinity. A teenaged debater appears in later scenes, putting a youthful spin on today’s issues. Jocelyn Shek, who performed on opening night, alternates with Rosdely Ciprian, a veteran of the Broadway run.

Maria Dizzia and Mike Iveson, foreground. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Heidi tells how she came to love the Constitution and especially the Ninth Amendment, as a teenager in Wenatchee, Washington. She entered the local American Legion debate tournament on the subject of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” (Her speech was titled “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution.”) Cash prizes were involved and as she progressed through more Legion competitions, she was able to earn enough money to pay her tuition and graduate from a state university.

During the course of her debate experience, she decided that the Ninth Amendment is her favorite because it seems open to enabling rights for everyone that may not be enumerated in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. It was in that elasticity, she points out, that in 1965 Justice William O. Douglas found the “penumbra” that defines a right of privacy not otherwise defined in the Constitution. That was central to Douglas’ majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, providing that the state could not prohibit the use of birth control, and then later in Justice Harry Blackmun’s 1973 majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, guaranteeing abortion rights.

Part of the debate structure required each speaker to describe an amendment drawn randomly. Heidi draws the 14th Amendment, Section 1, the supremely important post-Civil War amendment that guarantees citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. It contains the “life, liberty or property,”  “due process of law” and “equal protection” clauses that have been crucial in so many civil liberties cases. Heidi goes well beyond her limited debater’s time to tell us how important this amendment has been for the last 150 years. “Even though it took 50 more years to get women the right to vote” and another 50 to ensure voting rights for Blacks.

Jocelyn Shek and Maria Dizzia. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ultimately she says that as much as she loves the Constitution, it was always meant only to “protect the interests of a small number of rich, white property owners”—all men, like the U.S. Supreme Court until Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed in 1981.

The play acknowledges that although our Constitution is deeply flawed and difficult to amend, it is still an essential element of our democracy. Playwright Schreck, granting solid attention to the 14th Amendment as well as the Ninth, unfortunately ignores the First Amendment, which, in its protections for freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly, is a bulwark against repression.

At the end of the play, pocket Constitutions are handed to every audience member. As an ACLU member for more than 50 years, I was proud to see that the ACLU provided them. They include the ACLU’s useful “bust-card” advice: “What to do if you’re stopped by police.”

Rachel Hauck’s set design recreates an American Legion hall, walls lined with framed photos of white men—dozens of white men. Lighting is by Jen Schriever and sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar. Costume design is by Michael Krass.

Heidi Schreck’s other writing includes Grand Concourse (Steppenwolf, 2015) and episodes of TV series including “Nurse Jackie” and “Billions.”

What the Constitution Means to Me continues at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St., through April 12. Tickets are $30-$105 for performances six days a week with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Monday is dark. Running time is 110 minutes with no intermission.

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