Translating stage plays to the screen is difficult work, but 2020 has been an unusually great year for it, with Spike Lee’s energizing take on David Byrne’s American Utopia and now the Marielle Heller-helmed filmed version of Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. What Schreck and Heller have accomplished is especially impressive, given that the play is almost a one-woman show. For most of the play, Schreck addresses the audience directly. Unlike another recent film, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice, which was essentially a 30-minute Tilda Swinton monologue, What the Constitution Means to Me doesn’t have the benefit of changing sets. The entire 104-minute show is performed in a single “room,” so it comes down to the sheer strength of Schreck’s writing and performance to hold an audience’s attention. Schreck more than pulls it off.
The show is based on Schreck’s experiences with participating in Constitutional debate contests when she was younger. She won so many, she tells the audience, that the prize money put her through college, and the key was tying the facets of the Constitution to personal stories. Playing her 15-year-old self, she stands in a reconstructed version of the American Legion hall in Wenatchee, Washington, surrounded by framed photos of old servicemen. Mark Iveson plays the contest’s emcee, though he also later addresses the audience as himself.
These kinds of breaks in the wall of Schreck’s reconstructed memories happen often. As the show progresses, Schreck sheds her 15-year-old persona for the sake of getting her point across more directly. As she relates her family history — the fact that her great-great-grandmother was a mail-order bride, the generations of women in her family that endured domestic abuse — she explicitly explains just how the Constitution has failed the women she’s talking about, as well as all women and everyone who isn’t a straight, cis white man in America.
In the months since the play was last on stage (it’s been produced fairly consistently since mid-2017, until the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic), Schreck’s point about the fundamental inequity that’s been present from the very moment America was founded has only grown more potent. It’s an unfortunate truth, but it makes Schreck’s work all the more vital, as her seeming rambling comes to a precisely calculated, cogent point.
The specific stories she’s telling are personal, but Heller’s repeated cuts back to the audience make it clear that the experience she’s describing is universal, at least for everyone who, based on the original text of the Constitution, would not be able to vote in America. Sometimes audience members laugh, other times they even cry, as Schreck weaves what seem to be the disjointed thoughts of a 15-year-old into a sneak attack, luring in those who would likely not listen to her arguments had she come out of the gate swinging against the document upon which the United States was built.
Schreck has a knack for making her words seem unpremeditated; though she’s been performing this play off and on for at least three years, her performance seems spur-of-the moment and natural, as if she were actually working through these thoughts in real time. That uncanny ability, combined with the acuity and incisiveness of her writing, make her a force to be reckoned with, and Heller wisely lets Schreck’s talents speak for themselves. Schreck is the heart and soul of the show, so Heller doesn’t ever let the direction feel too intrusive. She’s capturing a show that’s perfect as is.
In the show’s final part, Schreck and Rosdely Ciprian, a Black high-school student and real-life debater, face off in an argument about whether the Constitution should be thrown out. Is it something to develop, or is this document, the source of so many woes, too broken to fix?
There’s no clear answer, but Schreck’s point is that change is necessary either way, and bringing Ciprian on acknowledges the work being done by today’s young people, as well as by people of color. It’s an encouraging note to end on, and it’s a testament to Schreck’s skill as a storyteller that such a depressing series of stories could coalesce into something hopeful, and that a filmed version of something meant to be seen in person could still feel so urgent.
What the Constitution Means to Me is streaming on Amazon now.