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Superb ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ proves a most timely discourse

A highly entertaining, deeply informative and ultimately hopeful examination of the document that impacts every single one of us, every single day of our lives.

Cassie Beck stars in the North American tour of “What The Constitution Means To Me.”
Cassie Beck stars in the North American tour of “What The Constitution Means To Me.”
Joan Marcus

In the second half of playwright Heidi Schreck’s remarkable exploration of the United States Constitution, she cites a statistic that’s jaw-dropping. Since the start of the 21st century, more U.S. women have been killed by their male partners than all the Americans killed in wars.

It’s shocking, until you consider the context provided by the 100-minute, Tony Award-winning “What the Constitution Means to Me.” As the production running through Nov. 7 at the Broadway Playhouse makes clear, we’re talking about a document designed to serve and protect men who owned property, property that included other human beings. It’s tempting to minimize the White Supremacy baked into the Founders work. After all, the Constitution was written centuries ago. We’ve changed so much since then.

But have things changed all that much if men are still killing their female partners in numbers that overtake war casualties and reach the level of a public health crisis? Sort of, according to Schreck’s highly entertaining, deeply informative and ultimately hopeful examination of the document that impacts every single one of us, every single day of our lives.

Directed by Oliver Butler, and set within the confines of an American Legion Hall, the fourth-wall-demolishing, autobiographical play stars Cassie Beck as Schreck. She has the audience in hand from the start, when she asks all male property owners to raise their hands. Everybody else in the theater? Sorry, the Founders said you don’t count, we’re told. At least not as much, Beck-as-Schreck explains before explicating a roster of historical judicial decisions proving the statement, starting with the Dred Scott decision and continuing to present day.

The playwright knows her stuff: At 15, Schreck traveled the country debating other teens about elements of the U.S. Constitution, earning enough prize money to pay for college. On stage, she’s overseen by an unnamed “legionnaire” (Mike Iveson) judging her every emotion and every word.

In viewing the U.S. Constitution through the lens of its impact on her family, Schreck shows in graphic terms that violent oppression, ignorance and misogyny have been woven into the Constitution so finely and so thoroughly, that they seem as natural as the air we breathe.

The line between comedy and tragedy in the script is whisker-thin: When the audience hears the (all-male) 1965 Supreme Court attempting to discuss female birth control, it sounds like an outtake from “Love, American Style” starring the Three Stooges. The irony of men who can’t bring themselves to say “I.U.D.” or “uterus” out loud while making the laws governing both is inescapable.

Jocelyn Shek (left) and Cassie Beck debate many issues in the North American Tour of “What The Constitution Means To Me.”
Jocelyn Shek (left) and Cassie Beck debate many issues in the North American tour of “What The Constitution Means To Me.”
Joan Marcus

It’s crucial to stress that “Constitution” is as hilarious as it is harrowing, incongruous as that sounds. Schreck’s family provides a lens for immigration issues, domestic violence and reproductive rights and how they shaped her family, from the great-grandmother who died of “melancholia” in an asylum to Schreck’s abortion generations later.

Set designer Rachel Hauck’s version of an American Legion hall is a canny reminder of the rights and privileges under the microscope: Dozens of photos of men stare down as Schreck battles to earn the approval that will lead to scholarship funds.

The play flags in the finale, when Beck and L.A. high schooler Emilyn Toffler (Jocelyn Shek at some performances) face-off for an extemporaneous debate, moderated by the “legionnaire.”. It’s an impressive but wholly unnecessary display of quick wits and amazing research skills, an addendum that dilutes the power of what preceded it. But these are minor issues; this is a four-star script delivered with power to spare.

That a battle speaks to the heart of who we are, and how we treat each other both now and historically.

Mike Iveson portrays the legionnaire in “What The Constitution Means To Me.” - Photo by Joan Marcus
Mike Iveson portrays the judgmental legionnaire in “What The Constitution Means To Me.”
Joan Marcus