“What the Constitution Means to Me,” which began its run at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre on Tuesday night, opens in an unassuming way: A playlist of ‘90s riot grrrl and modern pop fades out, and a woman, clad in an eye-popping yellow blazer, strides into the American Legion Hall that’s been re-created onstage, introducing herself — ”Hi, I’m Heidi” — and thanking the audience for coming.
One might expect a standard pre-show speech about theater etiquette to follow. Instead, Heidi launches into her opening monologue, explaining with vivacity and charm how, during her teenage years, she went around the country giving speeches about the Constitution for prize money — enough to fund her college education. (She notes, dryly, that she attended college three decades ago, when tuitions weren’t as out of reach.) She’s bringing that speech back to life — as best as she can, given that her mother got rid of it at some point.
The opening is a fitting introduction to Heidi (Cassie Beck), a lightly fictionalized version of playwright Heidi Schreck. “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which debuted on Broadway in 2019 and is being presented in Boston by the Huntington Theatre Company, draws on Schreck’s experiences as a high school constitutional debater as a way of framing a sometimes warm, often bracing look at American history’s attempts to become, as the titular document’s preamble says, “a more perfect union.”
Far from being a recitation of clauses and amendments, “Constitution” vividly explores the joy and heartbreak that come with loving the ideas at the heart of this country. The audience is reminded of the particulars of the Ninth Amendment and taught about the ways that “negative” and “positive” rights have effects — but “Constitution” is a history lesson with sharp teeth, breaking the fourth wall, playing snippets of Supreme Court arguments, and, at times, getting angry about the gulf between America’s lofty ideals and present-day reality.
Beck has a difficult task — embodying both the woman who wrote the play and that woman as a gawky, Patrick Swayze-obsessed teenager. She embraces it, portraying Heidi with vigor and wit. Her adolescent energy bubbles to the surface as she embodies 15-year-old Heidi, who draws comparison points between her witchcraft obsession and the “sweltering summer day in Philadelphia” when the Constitution was drafted; her spirit visibly deflates as she realizes who and what the protections of that founding document don’t cover, and how those gaps have affected marginalized Americans and her own family members.
Later in the evening, Beck (having dropped her Heidi guise) and her Legionnaire interlocutor, played with a gradually melting propriety by Gabriel Marin, are joined by a present-day teenager for a parliamentary debate about the Constitution’s worthiness. (On Tuesday, her foil was Los Angeles actor Jocelyn Shek, who delivered her coin-flip-determined side with resolve and fire; other shows will feature Emilyn Toffler, also from LA.) Points, retorts, and objections fly back and forth in timed intervals — and then a single audience member decides on behalf of the audience which side “won,” since, as Beck acidly notes, “we don’t live in a real democracy.”
“What the Constitution Means to Me” premiered in the summer of 2017, when the centuries-old American experiment was at a turning point. The ensuing years haven’t been much easier, as any glance at a stack of headlines can tell you; people who weren’t covered by the Constitution’s initial declarations of rights are, embarrassingly, still fighting to be viewed as equal in the eyes of the law, and polarization, misinformation, and other stressors only serve to inflame and aggravate their struggles.
Schreck, like her inspiration, has written a living document, an interrogation of this country’s history that takes on a different gravity as the country evolves (and, sadly, devolves). Her play doesn’t purport to have all the answers — although Schreck’s feminist, humanist, pro-positive-rights point of view is apparent. But it invites its audience to keep asking questions — they’re given pocket Constitutions to take home — and figure out how the founding tenets of the United States can be made more perfect in the years to come.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME
Play by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, through March 22. Tickets $35-$159. 617-266-0800, huntingtontheatre.org
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org