PTC makes a case for Schreck’s solipsistic Constitutional lesson

Mon Apr 10, 2023 at 12:08 pm
By Catherine Reese Newton
Laura Jordan stars in Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me at Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: BW Productions

What does the United States Constitution mean to you? For Heidi Schreck, as she pointedly observes in her Tony-nominated play What the Constitution Means to Me, that largely depends on your race, sex, orientation and economic status.

This show, which opened at Pioneer Theatre Company Friday night, is many things—a memory play, a civics lecture, a confession, an exercise in audience participation, a parliamentary debate—wrapped together in a surprisingly cohesive hundred minutes. Though the play often feels as if it’s preaching to the choir, audience reactions to the grim statistics shared by the principal actor suggest that even the most like-minded in the crowd learned something new. 

Schreck played herself on Broadway but Laura Jordan here portrays the playwright’s alter ego, Heidi, who won enough money in American Legion-sponsored oratory contests about the document to put herself through college. Much of the evening has Heidi stepping into and out of the role of her fifteen-year-old self, re-creating her prize-winning arguments and annotating them with stories of generation after generation of women in her family whom the Constitution did not protect.

These are Schreck’s stories, not Jordan’s, but the actor’s delivery feels spontaneous and conversational. She’s completely convincing, whether as a teenager geeking out over the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments or as an adult musing on the limitations of the Constitution’s promise.

Ben Cherry plays the moderator. His delivery is a bit more mannered than Jordan’s, but he projects abundant warmth and support even as the all-business Legionnaire. Late in the show, he unmasks as Mike Iveson, the actor who played opposite Schreck on and off Broadway, and delivers an autobiographical monologue. Unlike Jordan, Cherry never peels off the final layer to appear as himself, and so, despite Heidi’s assurance that “nothing in this show is a tangent,” this segment feels like one.

The straightforward physical production, directed by Karen Azenberg and featuring set design by Jo Winiarski, costumes by Phillip R. Lowe, lighting by Brian Tovar and sound by Bryce Robinette, gives the actors a comfortable space to inhabit and keeps the focus on their words.

Audience members are made to feel like participants from the beginning, when Heidi instructs them to imagine themselves as white, male Legionnaires. At the end of the show, introducing herself as actor Laura Jordan, she exhorts the crowd—as themselves—to cheer or boo the arguments in a debate over whether the Constitution should be abolished and rewritten. An audience member chosen at random will then declare a winner.

A rotating cast of four local teens face off against Heidi/Laura in this climactic debate. Taryn Bedore, a fifteen-year-old from Riverton, did the honors on opening night. Like Jordan’s, Bedore’s performance feels completely in the moment; the younger actor’s arguments are so irresistibly impassioned that, if you hadn’t seen the show before, it might never occur to you that they were scripted.

The disembodied voices of judicial giants also weigh in at various points. We hear William O. Douglas parsing the legality of contraception amid much uncomfortable throat-clearing, Antonin Scalia fixating on dry semantic minutiae in a life-or-death case, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg declaring that the Supreme Court will have enough women justices “when there are nine.” No matter how many times you’ve heard that famous RBG line, it lands with uncanny power in the context of this quirky but ultimately stirring play.

What the Constitution Means to Me plays through April 22;

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