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It’s Heidi Schreck vs. her 15-year-old self in a questioning of the Constitution

Heidi Schreck is shown performing her play "What the Constitution Means to Me."
Heidi Schreck is shown performing her play "What the Constitution Means to Me."Joan Marcus

When Heidi Schreck was a teenager growing up in Wenatchee, Wash., in the 1980s, she would travel around the country delivering reverent speeches about the Constitution in competitions sponsored by the American Legion. She used the prize money she earned in the contests to pay for college. With pouffy permed hair and wearing a blue power suit with big shoulder pads, the beaming Schreck extolled the virtues and poetic elasticity of America’s founding legal document, its ability to correct its flaws and blind spots over time.

The contest was a confidence boost for an uncertain young woman. “It gave me this opportunity to find my voice and feel powerful and feel that I was good at something,” says the playwright and actress, over the phone from her stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “[It also] awakened in me a love of history and a passion for the promise of democracy. I was a very idealistic, zealous little girl who very much believed that history bends towards justice, that this document was the best way for us to create equality for everyone over time, to create a true democracy.

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"But I question it now in a way that I didn’t as a teenager.”

Indeed, in her Broadway play “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck re-creates her prize-winning speech and interrogates the assumptions and ideas she had as a young woman about America’s foundational charter. The filmed version of the stage play, which was captured by director Marielle Heller during its 2019 run, arrives on Amazon Prime Video Oct. 16.

The play isn’t a dry civics lesson full of legal arcana. Your eyes will not glaze over. Instead, Schreck leans into her charisma, sharp-edged humor, and bright-eyed effervescence. She casts her spell by transforming the buoyant meta-theatrical monologue from an erudite primer on the Constitution into a humane, deeply personal dissection of the 231-year-old document and its harrowing limitations. Along the way, Schreck shows how the Constitution has impacted four generations of women in her family — by both bestowing and limiting rights — and examines the ways she believes it has subjugated women and failed to protect them from violence.

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“Constitution” became an audience and critical favorite during runs at New York Theater Workshop and Greenwich House Theater before moving to Broadway for an extended run in 2019. Along the way, it won Obie and New York Drama Critics' Circle awards for best new American play, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and was nominated for two Tony Awards.

“I was writing for television the whole time I was making this play, and I thought, well, this is like my little side project,” says Schreck, who’s worked on series including “Billions,” “I Love Dick,” and “Nurse Jackie.” “I really didn’t think that this show would be the one that people would respond to so passionately.”

The show’s free-form and digressive structure is no doubt influenced by Schreck’s experimental roots in the Seattle and downtown New York theater scenes. It weaves together stories about Schreck’s great-great-grandmother Theressa, a mail-order bride from Germany who was purchased for $75 in 1879, her “log runner” grandma Bette, seminal Supreme Court cases involving domestic violence (including Castle Rock v. Gonzales), Schreck’s choice to have an abortion in her early 20s, her propensity for “Greek tragedy crying,” her teenage obsessions with the Salem witch trials and Patrick Swayze, and her lifelong attachment to a series of sock-monkeys. “Her tone,” said one critic, “is a miraculous blend of brutal and bright, like a juggler keeping chainsaws aloft.”

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Schreck is joined onstage by a stern Legionnaire, played by Mike Iveson, who oversees the contest, its rules, and time limits. Later in the play, Schreck engages in a fierce face-off with a real-life teenage debater (New York City high schoolers Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams alternated in the part).

In the contest on which the play is based, Schreck and her competitors were charged with giving a seven-minute speech drawing a personal connection between their own lives and the Constitution. That part, Schreck says, was harder for her when she was 15 because she was “emotionally guarded.”

As she set out to write the play, she thought, “What if I really try to draw a personal connection between my life and the document and take that idea as far as I possibly could? Except now I’ll be doing that from the perspective of a grown woman in my 40s,” she says. “That was fascinating, because it led me to look at the ways certain Supreme Court decisions had affected my life and then my mom’s life, my grandma’s life, my great-grandma’s life, my great-great-grandma’s life.”

Onstage, staring down at Schreck from all sides are 163 framed photos of Legionnaires, arranged on shelves that line Rachel Hauck’s three-walled, diorama set. “It’s a physical manifestation of the patriarchy that’s out there judging, watching, and bearing down,” says Oliver Butler, the play’s director, “And it actually gives Heidi something to fight against, escape from, and ultimately overcome.”

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Indeed, facing her family’s painful past — and the nation’s own failure to reckon with its violent history — was key to the journey. “My mom was always very open that she had grown up in an abusive household, physically and sexually. But I didn’t think of it as part of my life, I guess, until I started researching these cases and then also going to therapy. I realized how what my mom had gone through had affected the way she raised me, and I began to see how this legacy of violence on my maternal side had shaped the way I saw the world.”

While Schreck had long been reluctant to talk about that part of her family history, grappling with that legacy of inherited trauma has been therapeutic (especially now that she’s become a mother herself, having given birth to twin daughters in April). “In some ways, the making of this play has been a long process of discovery. I think working through [the trauma] has brought me — and my mom says for her, too — a lot of perspective and healing. We’ve had so many conversations about it that we could never have when I was younger. And connecting it to the larger structural forces that enabled it has been really freeing for both of us.”

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While she says the show was “cathartic” to write, it was emotionally grueling to perform night after night. She remembers doing it on Broadway as several states were passing restrictions on abortion access and during the 2018 Supreme Court hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford delivered her searing testimony. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re living through such a tumultuous era,” Schreck says, “but there’s always something going on in the news that feels like, ‘Oh God, what a time to be performing this show.’ ”

Schreck says she never thought of “What the Constitution Means to Me” as a political play, but she sometimes wonders, “What’s the value of [the show] if it doesn’t transform the way people look at our country?”

Indeed, she hopes the film and play will enlighten audiences and maybe even change some minds, but “it’s not a treatise,” she says. “I really wanted to look back at this contest and question this document that I loved so much. There’s a real mystery at the heart of it: Why am I how I am? And why did the lives of the women in my family turn out the way they did? It’s an act of questioning, not an answering of anything.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.