Heidi Schreck’s hit Broadway play transfers to Amazon with admirable verve, thanks to a strong central performance and effortless direction from Marielle Heller.
The Constitution has been in the news a lot these days. With the death of US Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and a Presidential election right around the corner, this 200+-year-old document is on everyone’s mind these days. With 27 Amendments and 4,500 words, there’s a lot to unpack. Thankfully we have Heidi Schreck’s 2019 play What the Constitution Means to Me hitting Amazon Prime at this oddly relevant time.
Schreck both wrote and starred in the 2019 Broadway hit, and director Marielle Heller filmed the play during the final week of its Broadway run. Full disclosure, I attended the play during its run, scoring a balcony seat the penultimate night. I remember leaving the play full of emotions, texting friends who had seen it, and floating home on the buzz of a great theatrical experience. I can happily say Heller and Schreck get pretty close to recreating the same energy and excitement in the filmed version of What the Constitution Means to Me.
The play opens with Schreck in a recreation of her hometown American Legion Hall. When Schreck was fifteen, she toured the country giving speeches and debates on the United States Constitution. The money she earned from these competitions paid for her entire college tuition (although Schreck mentions it was thirty years ago and she attended a state school). Schreck immerses the audience in a journey through her past, resurrecting her speech under the watchful eye of a stuffy white male Legionnaire (Mike Iveson). She digs into the penumbra, the drama, and the humor behind our nation’s supreme law.
Schrek is effervescent and smart as her fifteen-year-old self, excitedly explaining how she framed her constitutional speech around the Salem Witch Trials because as a teen, she was obsessed with witches. In the next moment, she’ll jump to her present adult self to reveal Roe v. Wade helped pave the way for many women (Schreck included) to make their own choice about terminating a pregnancy. Schreck knows how to disarm the audience with humor, and connect on a deep level with brave personal anecdotes, always finding a way to tie it all back to the Constitution.
Heller, director of Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is great at finding the balance between the humor and drama of Schreck’s play. She knows when to pull away for the audience shots, usually during humorous stories like the time adult Schreck lost her sock monkey on a plane. She also knows when to hold tight on Schreck, keeping the camera on the performer as she recounts the harrowing story behind the Supreme Court case The Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales. Heller excels at finding the nuance in every beat, knowing when to focus on Schreck, and pull back to respect her space.
Schreck also knows that a play about debates would be nothing without an actual debate. She’s recruited two young debaters, Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams (both rotated performing the role of Schreck’s opponent during the run), to engage in a rousing debate on whether to abolish the Constitution. Heller’s framed Ciprian and Williams entrances like a boxer entering the ring. They emerge from the shadows backstage, ready to throw down parliamentary punches at Schreck.
The debate part of the play is electric, with Schreck competing against her companion live onstage. There’s a coin toss to decide who’s arguing to abolish and who’s arguing to keep. They lay down rules for the debaters (no props!) and the audience (boo, yell, clap, and check your complimentary pocket constitution to make sure they’re telling the truth onstage). After a few minutes of brief debate prep, the battle begins.
In the filmed version, Schreck debates keeping the Constitution, whereas Ciprian gets the task to argue for abolishing (there’s also a bonus clip of Williams arguing to keep the Constitution, which I highly recommend). I remember being in the audience, sitting at the edge of my seat, clapping and cheering as the debate occurred onstage. I did the same this time around watching the film version, sitting at the edge of my couch, watching the process unfold on my TV, clearly a testament to Heller’s skill at pivoting from one debater to another.
Heller excels at finding the nuance in every beat, knowing when to focus on Schreck, and pull back to respect her space.
The debaters argue for a few rounds, then they arrive at the end where they pick an audience member to decide to either keep or abolish the Constitution. In the play’s 183 performances on Broadway, there were 57 votes to abolish, 123 votes to keep, and 3 ties. I won’t spoil the outcome from the filmed version, but you can see different versions of the debate during the credits.
What the Constitution Means to Me is a must-watch, especially during this politically charged time. There will never be a substitute for experiencing theatre live, in-person. However, Heller manages to capture the essence of Schreck’s play, getting very close to the thrilling energy of seeing it live.
It’s refreshing to see women onstage and off commanding the show and leading us on a journey of our nation’s governing document. I’m sure it will inspire debates amongst viewers on whether to abolish or keep the Constitution. Whatever you decide, let this rallying call from Thursday Williams serve as a guide: “if you want to change a country, you need to wake up, get involved, go vote. … Let’s be the change that we desire.”
What the Constitution Means to Me is currently streaming on Amazon.