In a wood-paneled room covered with shelves of photos of American Legion members donning wool garrison hats behind a U.S. flag, 15-year-old Heidi Schreck is waiting for her name to be called. Schreck is part of a contest where she and other participants must render impassioned speeches about the American Constitution. To be effective, though, the contestants must show a personal connection to the historical document.
This contest is the basis of playwright Heidi Schreck’s popular play “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which the Huntington Theatre Company has brought to the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 20. The touring production, under Oliver Butler’s direction, is an emotional journey filled with first-hand stories of multi-generational trauma and triumph along with details of landmark court cases that show how the “living document” impacted her family and how it affects all of us today.
The young Schreck — obsessed with Patrick Swayze and the Salem witch trials — declares at the beginning that to her, the Constitution is a crucible or witches’ cauldron. Portrayed by the prodigious and hilarious Cassie Beck, the young contestant shares that “A crucible is also a severe test … of patience or belief … [and that] the Constitution can be thought of as a boiling pot in which we are thrown together in sizzling and steamy conflict to find out what it is we truly believe.”
That conflict is at the heart of the play and Beck, in boots and a blazer, adroitly upholds the Constitution’s significance while bravely pointing out its shortcomings, all to inspire audiences to rally around this morphing document and reimagine its future.
Themes of immigration, abuse, abortion, depression and more come up through the hour and forty-minute show. Audiences learn about Schreck’s great-grandmother, grandmother and mother and hear of the hardships they endured. She also shows how over time, their rights in this country changed.
But one case that’s outlined, Castle Rock versus Gonzales, shatters the heart. Jessica Gonzales (nee Lenahan) is an indigenous woman from Colorado who took out a restraining order against her abusive husband. A month after the order was filed, Mr. Gonzales kidnapped their children. Mrs. Gonzales repeatedly sought help from the police, who refused. Soon, Mr. Gonzales killed their three children and Mrs. Gonzales sued the Castle Rock police department. The Fourteenth Amendment was invoked, and Mrs. Gonzales won the case. Later the city appealed, and the case was taken to the Supreme Court, where the verdict was overturned.
Chilling audio of Antonin Scala, who wrote the majority decision, is played for the audience. It’s decided that even though law enforcement shall protect its citizens, it doesn’t mean they must. “This court,” says Beck “led by Antonin Scalia overturned her case, killed the Colorado law, and gutted the Violence Against Women Act by ruling that the police had no constitutional obligation to protect Jessica or her daughters.”
Schreck, who played herself in the New York production, balances the good with the bad by sharing amendments and clauses that abolished slavery, propelled the civil rights movement, and offered women the opportunity to vote, but the tension that exists with such a document that aims to shape how we live but can never be all-encompassing drives the narrative.
In an interview, Beck shares that Schreck, a 2019 Pulitzer finalist for the play and a Tony Award nominee, rewrites the script for actors who play Heidi so that she can address the audience as herself. We also hear from Gabriel Marin, who portrays Mel Yonkin, the legionnaire running the contest, talking about a heartwarming moment with his father after his team lost a game. Emilyn Toffler, who appears in the second half of the play for a spirited debate about whether to keep or toss the Constitution, talks about his dream of becoming a professor who can afford to live in the Back Bay.
The debate on Wednesday night ended with an audience member swiftly deciding for us (just as a small group of white men determined our rights hundreds of years ago) that we should keep the Constitution.
Though the play brings up more questions than it can answer, “What the Constitution Means to Me” pushes theatergoers to think about the space between us and how this document, though vital to establishing the country’s fundamental laws and outlining basic rights, is just a guide.
The ability to create real, lasting change for the better rests with all of us.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” continues at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 20 as part of the Huntington Theatre Company season.