Looking back, 2019 was a simpler time, when all that human-rights advocates had to worry about were sexists, racists, homophobes, and domestic abusers. So much historical water has flowed beneath our constitutional bridges since then that the list of socio-political threats we need to concern ourselves with has grown almost as lengthy as the Constitution itself.
If anything, that adds a wallop to Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, which opened this weekend at Depot Theatre, featuring Kayla Ryan Walsh as Heidi — the real-world actor who starred in her own production, which opened on Broadway just four short years ago.
Heidi takes the stage as her 15-year-old self, who is fattening her college fund as something of a ringer on the American Legion high-school competitive speaking circuit.
The teenage girl speaks of the Constitution not as a dusty relic, but as a panting, pulsating “hot and steamy” cauldron of ideas that has brewed our unique form of government. We assume she means this in a good way — certainly the affirming Legionnaire judges must have thought so.
Walsh delivers an emphatic, spring-loaded performance of this stage in the girl’s life, bursting at the seams with youthful exuberance in her canary yellow blazer, symbolic of a dutiful legislative pageboy, er, person.
Yet even in this patriotic celebration of constitutional rights, there is Legionnaire Mike, crisply played by Michael J. Connolly, telling her precisely when to start, cutting her off mid-thought when it’s time to stop and engaging in plenty of male throat clearing to remind the little lady who’s in charge.
At least this is progress of a sort, as the Framers of old, who assigned power to White male property owners, never would have countenanced a female opinion of any sort back in the day. Heidi quickly comes to realize this, and her view of the parchment takes a darker turn even as she does so with plenty of self-effacing humor to the point of making fun of her own sobbing — sometimes you just have to laugh.
Yet there’s nothing funny about the female experience of her familial past: Heidi’s great-grandmother was a mail-order bride from Germany (a “good” sort of immigrant) who died at 36 after being admitted to a mental hospital for treatment of melancholia; her grandmother Bette was a battered wife; and Heidi herself experienced an abortion and borderline sexual assault.
What was the Constitution doing all this time? Not much, from a protective standpoint. The genius of the play is taking dry constitutional law and drier terms like “penumbra” and “due process” and relating them to real-life tragedies. It is also a good, condensed historical reminder of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go. Not to mention that this progress appears to be in free-fall at the moment.
What the Constitution Means to Me reminds us that birth control was largely illegal until 1965, abortion until 1973, spousal abuse until — well, rest assured we’re working on it. In the birth control case Griswold v. Connecticut, a ray of light pierced the clouds when Justice William O. Douglas inferred a right of privacy from four of the Constitution’s amendments, which created a “penumbra” of rights not specifically mentioned in the document.
Or so we thought. But as Heidi scraps her happy blazer and morphs into her older wiser self, it doesn’t seem that way. The Depot Theatre doesn’t control current events (probably) so it was pure coincidence that on the day of the show’s opening, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education, somehow reckoning that the equal protection under the law in the 14th Amendment had been written to protect white guys. Who knew?
This is the elephant in the room as What the Constitution Means to Me, almost imperceptibly, grows less funny and more gloomy, particularly as it considers the case of a Colorado woman who couldn’t get the time of day from the police as her abusive husband was busy murdering her children. The court, in 2005, saw no problem with that.
What the Constitution Means to Me premiered on Broadway as the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were playing out, picking at the scar of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas and leading to more male throat-clearing over boys-will-be-boys behavior that, we thought, had ceased to stand as an excuse.
For many women, this might have been seen as the bottom, but history of course said “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” as looming in the future were the events of January 6th and the nonsensical legal gibberish of Dobbs.
As such, What the Constitution Means to Me has become provocative theater at its best. It’s hard to know what to think. Events have both diminished and elevated the play in a weird sort of way. In 2019, the Constitution, at worst, was passive, often failing to protect the rights of people who more or less weren’t specifically mentioned in the document by name. In 2023, the Constitution is aggressive, an instrument of overt harm done to women and minorities over issues we thought had long been settled.
Director Julie Lucido wisely lets the play speak for itself without adding any hints of the oncoming freight train. Walsh’s performance implies it, her face becoming more pained, the pauses between her thoughts longer as it becomes harder to make light of a situation that is bad and likely to get worse.
Actual tapes of Supreme Court debate — Lucido delightfully lets them roll through the intermission — are almost embarrassing, as justices discuss female hearts, minds, and parts (much, much more male throat clearing). Just when it all seems too depressing to go on, our mood is rescued by delightful Lydya Felix, who brightly arrives as a student debater to help lead a real-time discussion of whether it’s time for a new Constitution.
What the Constitution Means to Me isn’t always fair. It tends to blame the Constitution for poorly written law and lame jurists. Is Sam Alito really James Madison’s fault? It also wrongly implies that William Douglas only legalized birth control because he had a young girlfriend at the time, a slap at the greatest champion of human rights in the history of the court not named Marshall or Ginsburg.
But then maybe it’s time white males know how it feels.
Tim Rowland contributed this review by the request of, and in collaboration with the Depot Theatre. Rowland is a journalist and New York Times bestselling author, whose humorous commentaries explore an eclectic variety of subject matter, from politics to history to the great outdoors. He and his wife Beth live on the Ausable River in Jay, N.Y.