The preamble to the US Constitution begins, famously, with the words “We the People,” before going on to spell out its lofty goals, among them to “establish Justice” and “promote the general Welfare.”
“What the Constitution Means to Me,” written by and starring Heidi Schreck and streaming this Friday on Amazon Prime, amounts to an impassioned argument that those words are worse than hollow when it comes to women.
Don’t be misled by the deliberately bland, civics-lesson title. This is a play to scorch the conscience. (And that innocuous title acquires a new layer of meaning by the end of this live-capture film version of the play, which ran on Broadway in 2019.) Schreck matches the wit and fire of her writing with a riveting performance that often does not feel like a performance at all, but rather a cri de coeur wrenched up from a deep place where the personal, the historical, and the universal have met and merged.
Systematically but not didactically, Schreck builds her case: that women lack legal protections against “epidemic levels of violence” from men precisely because the nation’s founding document had no interest in establishing justice for them or promoting their general welfare — and, indeed, because it did not regard women as people. (The same was true, of course, of Black Americans, a fact that Schreck does not overlook.) The failure to see women as fully human was reflected in the legal and political system that grew out of the Constitution, built on unjust court rulings that often stemmed from self-serving interpretations of the Constitution and its amendments.
Schreck poses a basic question — “What does it mean if this Constitution will not protect us from the violence of men?” — to which there are tangible, real-life answers, and she delves into them, partly by drawing on the experiences of four generations of women in her own family. But Schreck also hauntingly evokes the wider specter of what those stories and numbers add up to, the inescapable fact that shadows the life of every woman: “You can’t forget about it . . . The truth of that rampant violence against women’s bodies is underneath everything, all the time, humming.”
One of the remarkable things about “Constitution” is how smoothly Schreck transitions from the play’s whimsical beginning to such deep and dark waters, and how she continues to generate periodic flashes of humor even when immersed in those depths.
At the start, the playwright-actress channels her eagerly idealistic teenage self on a set that replicates the American Legion halls where Schreck used to compete in oratory contests for college scholarship money whose theme was, yep, “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Looking down on her from the walls are scores of framed photographs of male American Legion officials. (Actor Mike Iveson, the only other person onstage until the very end, portrays a Legion moderator of the contest.) The idea back then was to describe how the Constitution had personally affected the young orators.
Schreck builds on that idea to devastating effect after she shifts to her present-day self. Her grandmother, mother, and aunts were physically and/or sexually abused by her grandmother’s second husband, with scant protection from the law. Her great-grandmother was purchased from Germany for $75 as a mail-order bride in 1879 and, though the exact circumstances of her marriage are unclear, died at age 36 in a mental institution. In college, Schreck once consented to sex while a half-buried fear for her own safety flickered at the edge of her consciousness, making her wonder now whether she had consented at all.
She tells the stories of other women and the harrowing statistics that envelop them: that one in three American women are sexually assaulted during their lifetimes, that one in five are raped, that more women have been killed by their male partners in the 21st century than Americans have died in wars during those two decades. There are 179 constitutions that have “explicit gender protections written into them,” Schreck says, adding bitingly: “Ours is not one of them.”
This film version of the stage production of “Constitution,” shot at the Helen Hayes Theater near the end of its 2019 run, proves once again that something is gained and something is lost in the transition from stage to small screen. (The pandemic having brought live performance to a near-standstill, the small screen is where theater will have to find a home for the foreseeable future. Theater lovers have been able to get at least a partial fix thanks to the arrival of live-capture versions of “Hamilton” on Disney+ last month and the 2018 Broadway revival of “The Boys in the Band” on Netflix this month.)
“Constitution” director Marielle Heller takes advantage of frequent close-ups to capture the kind of expressive nuances that can’t register as fully in a theater, adding power to those moments when Schreck’s anguish seemingly leaves her at a near-loss for words, or when there is a tremor in her voice.
Inevitably, the trade-off is that Heller’s film cannot quite reproduce the way Schreck engaged with the audience inside the theater by creating an atmosphere of confiding, collective intimacy. In partial compensation, Heller frequently turns her camera on the audience, where the tears in the eyes of female spectators testify to the power of the story Schreck is telling — and to the fact that it is their story, too.
So much of the work of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement has been about adjusting the lens on the past so that we see it more accurately, a clearer vision with implications for the present and the future. That future is wonderfully embodied here by Rosdely Ciprian, a 14-year-old who at the end of the play debates Schreck on whether the Constitution should be abolished or kept.
Ciprian’s smarts, self-possession, and fearlessness are a tonic for the spirit. If we’re all lucky, she’ll be president some day.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME
On: Amazon Prime, Friday