WAM and Berkshire Theatre Group Team present “What the Constitution Means to Me”

Heidi Schreck expounding on the marvels of the US Constitution. Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
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Going by the title alone, Heidi Schreck’s award-winning play What the Constitution Means to Me seems like an unlikely theatrical hit. It begins with the playwright (or in this case, actor Kate Baldwin playing the role of Schreck) recounting and then enacting her experience as a whip-smart 15-year-old engaging in debates held in American Legion Halls. Schreck competed against other students to win cash prizes that would pay for her college tuition, but the play is about so much more than these debates. 

First produced in a new play festival in New York City in 2017, Constitution played at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in the spring of 2018 before heading back to New York for an off-Broadway run that winter, and then a limited Broadway run in the spring of 2019 which was extended into summer. That year, the play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and for Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actress in a Play.

While I missed this show in New York, I did watch a live recording of the Broadway production on Amazon Prime Video—and you can too (and you should), as it’s still available to stream. Regardless, I was excited to learn that Kristen van Ginhoven had selected this play for the main production of WAM Theatre, which she co-founded, and that she would be directing in a co-production with Berkshire Theatre Group, kicking off the Berkshires cultural season.

Director Kristen van Ginhoven, center, greets audience members and WAM supporters David Schecker and Vicki Bonnington—who donned patriotic ensembles to attend the play—outside the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Snapshot by Bess Hochstein

Clearly a compelling play with broad appeal, What the Constitution Means to Me is also exceptionally timely given the current threats to US institutions and democracy itself, not to mention the present-day erosion of women’s rights and bodily autonomy. It’s also easy and relatively inexpensive to produce, as it’s set in one location—a simple approximation of an American Legion Hall—and has a small cast. It’s nearly a monologue, but for the onstage presence and occasional interjections of an actor who plays the World War II veteran moderating the debate, plus a young actor who takes the stage toward the end of the play to engage in a real-time debate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There are intriguing levels of theatrical artifice in this powerful production, which become apparent when veteran Broadway actor Kate Baldwin breaks the fourth wall, introducing herself as Heidi, setting the scene before transforming into young Heidi launching into her debate speech. We audience members become the members of the Legion Hall—that is to say, patriotic and likely conservative older white men. While her frequent debate opponent likens the Constitution to a patchwork quilt, Heidi posits that it’s more like a crucible, and, in a neat authorial trick, the audience has experienced a crucible by the end of the show.

Baldwin embodies teenage Heidi Schreck expounding on the marvels of the US Constitution. Photo by David Dashiell

After presenting her prepared debate speech, the moderator selects at random one of the amendments for the debaters to address spontaneously. Heidi draws the Fourteenth Amendment, and the concepts of citizenship and equal protection under the law become the central themes of the play. As the drama explicitly makes clear, throughout US history women never have had equal protection under the law, and they still have not attained it.

At about this point in the play, Heidi steps away from her enthusiastic 14-year-old persona and, with a grown-up and more jaded perspective, relates stories about the women in her family, reaching back to 1897 when her German great-great grandmother arrived in Washington State as a mail-order bride, only to die at age 36, having been committed to a mental hospital for what was called melancholia. We hear harrowing tales of how her grandmother’s husband abused her and Heidi’s mother, and of court cases in which police and the courts failed to uphold women’s rights and protect them from harm and death. Even the Supreme Court failed to keep women safe — and continues to fail them — in keeping with the Justices’ interpretation of the Constitution—which, we are reminded, was written by wealthy White men at a time when women were seen as property and Native Americans and Black people were viewed as less than human. It’s worth considering the temporal context of the play, which was first produced just about when Brett Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court, following hearings in which women who accused him of sexual assault were disregarded. We learn terrible facts and figures about the dangers of being female in America today, including that four women are murdered every day by their male partners, and ten million women live in violent households.

Baldwin as Heidi introduces Jay Sefton as the debate moderator about to transition into the role of Danny. Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

Heidi disrupts her own narrative by introducing us to her easily overlooked companion onstage, Jay Sefton, playing the stern debate moderator. He then lightens the mood, taking off his military jacket and stepping out of that dour role and into the bright persona of the actor Danny Wolohan, who originated the role. Heidi notes his “positive male energy,” and Danny relates a story from his own youth as a boy with a kind, loving father. Despite his dad being a positive role model, Sefton deftly and devastatingly demonstrates how toxic masculinity is built into the language men use and passed from man to boy. It’s a short but jolting moment that reinforces the play’s central theme Constitution is heavy stuff, but the smart writing keeps it from tipping over the edge into unbearable, and keen direction from Van Ginhoven keeps it lively. Baldwin’s portrayal of young Schreck is kinetic, bounding to the lectern and bouncing with teenage zeal for the document she adores. When the tone turns more grim, Baldwin’s presence becomes heavier, more grounded, and we understand that her relationship to the Constitution, which she so admired as a child, has evolved into something much more complicated. She conveys Heidi’s shift from childlike enthusiasm to disillusionment as she with her whole body; as she recounts stories of generational trauma and societal injustice, the emotions play achingly across her face and physically weigh her down. 

Zurie Adams makes her case in the epilogue debate. Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

The play ends with something of an epilogue—a debate between Heidi and a local student debater, played by a sparkling Zurie Adams, about whether the Constitution should be jettisoned and replaced or if it should be amended to truly extend equal protections to all citizens, not just white men. The conceit is that Heidi and Zurie can argue either position, and which side they take at each performance is decided by a flip of a coin. It’s a credit to the production that the audience really doesn’t know if that’s the case or if each actor argues the same side at each show. Regardless, the final say goes to an audience member chosen at random, and at the performance I attended, the Constitution got the boot. While Heidi argued to keep it, in my mind this decision was justified by the strong case she made against the document throughout the course of the play.

Playwright Heidi Schreck, center, made a rare appearance to watch this production of her play. She is flanked by Jay Sefton, Zurie Adams, Kirsten van Ginhoven, and Katie Baldwin. Photo by Caelan Carlough

Shortly before the run began in May, van Ginhoven announced that she was moving on from the theater organization she had cofounded, and this excellent production was a fitting swan song, especially in that WAM was created to share the voices of female playwrights, tell women’s stories, employ female artists, and donate a portion of ticket sales to organizations that help women. Running from May 18 to June 3, the production was sold out, and Berkshire Theatre Group was able to schedule additional performances to meet demand. In a rare move, playwright Schreck attended one of the final performances. She said she loved the production and gave two thumbs up to the direction and the acting. As van Ginhoven moves on to a new, as yet unknown phase of her life after having built a vibrant, important, and equitable cultural organization, we in the Berkshires will miss her at the helm of WAM while anticipating what comes next.


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