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Home > Arts > REVIEW: Murmurs of Discontent and Crucibles in <em>What the Constitution Means to Me</em> (Guthrie)

REVIEW: Murmurs of Discontent and Crucibles in What the Constitution Means to Me (Guthrie)

Cassie Beck stars as Heidi Schreck in the National Tour of What the Constitution Means to Me, which opened last week at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What the Constitution Means to Me is a play about law. This show, now playing at the Guthrie Theater, is especially about how the law of this land has failed American women – again and again – from ratification to the present day.

The starting points for What the Constitution Means to Me are playwright Heidi Schreck’s experiences as a high school contestant in American Legion speech competitions. In its pre-COVID incarnation, Schreck played herself; the play was tweaked and developed over many years, with a Broadway run in 2019 that garnered two Tony Award nominations, including for Best Play. It transports audiences back to the late 1980s, when a 15-year-old Schreck traveled from city to city, entering local competitions, and slowly earning money to pay for her college tuition. 

This play fits into the small but interesting category of plays about governance – works that find rich human feelings and dramatic heft in the individual’s relationship to the state, while also contextualizing history. At the opening curtain, Schreck (now masterfully played by Cassie Beck) describes What the Constitution Means to Me as growing out of her wish to go back to her 15-year-old self and see just what it was that she loved about the Constitution. Schreck’s play powerfully displays the shocking degree to which, as Faulkner famously put it, the past is not even past.

Rachel Hauck’s witty set is a reconstruction (from Schreck’s memory) of an American Legion Hall in Wenatchee, Washington: cheap orange plastic chairs with metal legs, an enormous lectern with the Legion’s Seal, and tall wood-paneling almost completely covered by framed photos of men in uniform. Over 150 sober-faced veterans seem to stare down at young Heidi as she nervously steps forward to compete.

Jocelyn Shek and Cassie Beck in the National Tour of What the Constitution Means to Me, now playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In the match that follows, contestants randomly draw the name of a constitutional amendments and “draw a personal connection”. So it is that young Heidi embarks on The Constitution as a Crucible (we are told of a competitor who spoke of The Constitution as Patchwork Quilt). “The constitution is a living document,” Heidi begins. “That is what is so beautiful about it… A crucible … is a pot in which you put many different ingredients and then you boil them up together until they transform into something else — something that is sometimes magic. At the same time, the onstage Heidi adds, “a crucible is also a severe test – a test of patience or belief.”

Much of how this production works so well comes from Cassie Beck’s fluid, open, and charming performance. The same sort of startling emotional honesty Beck displayed in her shattering performance as Amy in The Humans enables her to hook into the personal and inherited trauma that Heidi is revisiting. The result is riveting throughout. Beck also brings comic expertise to the rich (and sometimes dark) humor woven throughout the script, even while morphing seamlessly into various versions of Heidi.

What the Constitution Means to Me is at once a drama of rights and lived deprivation, an exploration of the history of male violence toward women, and a play about lost innocence. While it often covers abstract legal doctrine, it is never dry. In the course of the evening, one learns a great deal about our “living, breathing” governing document and how it has been interpreted over time. (For the record, the legal scholar with whom I attended the show commented that there is one small slip: the play claims that legal protection against sexual harassment came from the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 14th amendment, when the relevant case, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, in fact involved the interpretation of a federal anti-discrimination statute). 

The narrative is not an abstract discussion: over the course of the play, Heidi explains poignantly where and how the Constitution has failed to protect generations of women in her family. The script does not whitewash these women or their choices, and does not trade in sanctimony. On the contrary, Schreck shows her mother and grandmother and other foremothers to be complex and flawed. At times, they show astonishing courage and resourcefulness; at other times, we see them retreating and passively participating in their own oppression, a complicated legacy that touches on the playwright/narrator’s own life.

As Schreck keeps insisting, there are consequences to remaining silent or playing along or giving up the fight. The play again and again reminds audiences that women and women’s bodies are still not safe. A key moment presents disturbing statistics: that more women in America have been killed by male partners since 9/11 than all the fatalities of September 11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, and that millions of American women still live in violent households. Three women are murdered each day by their partners. “What does it mean,” Heidi asks, as this section of the play ends, “that this document will not protect us from the violence of men?” And what does it mean that in 2021 if it should be interpreted now in a way that fails to protect women’s right to control their own bodies and reproductive choices? 

An interesting point in the performance involves some audience participation, with a vote on the Constitution’s fate. The play’s overarching argument is that the Constitution will not, on its own, protect citizens. At the same time, there is little reason to think that things would be any better were we to get rid of this Constitution and replaced it in another. No matter how good one’s legal documents are, one still needs to pay attention to who gets to interpret and enforce them. Change will only come if people stand up to the men who think it their right to dominate and oppress women. And it means we must insist on centering women’s right to control their bodies and their lives while working to get courts and institutions that won’t just stand by when those rights are violated. 

Women, men, and all people of all genders who care: stand up, maintain focus, and make good trouble.

What the Constitution Means to Me runs through October 24 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Kit Bix