Heidi Schreck is a TV writer and actress who gave the world “Billions” and “I Love Dick” after writing “Nurse Jackie.” But back when she was a teenage in small town Washington State, she was a world beater at the American Legion-sponsored “What the Constitution Means to Me” contests. Lots and lots of them.
She refers to that as her mother’s “scheme” for her to make enough money to go to college. She makes that reference in her revival and adaptation of her speeches from way back when in her Broadway show “What the Constitution Means to Me,” and filmed a performance of it which premieres Friday on Amazon.
Her voice cracks when she says, “In recent years, I’ve been thinking a LOT about the Constitution...for various reasons.” Sure, it’s rehearsed. But yeah, we get it. Oh do we ever.
What stands out from this one-woman/two-co-stars show is how exhaustively and thoroughly she had to master this material — at 15 — dissecting and extemporizing on America’s Holy Writ, given an angle to speak about in her presentation — “America’s Constitution: A Living Document” or “The Crucible of the Constitution.”
So, the show, a sort of “TED Talk” meets “Full Frontal,” with the “very late” 40something Schreck dressed in The Samantha Bee Collection, remembering those speeches and debates. She “personalizes” those long ago-researched and prepped improvisations with stories from her family’s history and personal anecdotes about how the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s interpretations of it in making law impacted her, her family, immigrants and women.
Schreck and her show are smart, informative, funny and often touching.
Schreck talks about her abortion, at 21, her mother, aunt and grandmother’s abuse at the hands of an abusive stepfather her grandmother married.
She relates case law that contributes to America’s epidemic of violence against women, summons up statistics and punches holes in Supreme Court missteps, and awkward “progress” in civil rights and the “right to privacy” that opened the door for women gaining control of their own bodies.
Schreck, on a stage that mimics the Wenatchee, Washington American Legion hall where she “got her start” as a performer and writer, relates how a 1965 Supreme Court of “nine men, four of whom are cheating on their wives,” debated and heard arguments about a woman’s right to birth control.
And then we hear a tape of that clumsy, cluelessly sexist oral argument from way back when.
Schreck analyzes and sings the praises of Amendment 9, which says “just because a certain right is not in the Constitution doesn’t mean you don’t have that right,” which provided the avenue for much expanding of the rights, racial and sexual minorities.
And she breaks down, with an American Legion judge and moderator (Mike Iverson) asking the questions “on the clock,” Amendment 14, which promised everyone in the U.S. — immigrants included, “due process of law.”
Her family’s story includes a “bought” bride (“a good immigrant”) who “died of melancholia” and the shared trait among females of her clan — “Greek tragedy crying.”
And her own story includes what we’d today call something akin to “date rape,” involving a guy so nice she’d never figure there was any reason to fear him, but who triggered her “just stay alive” response to his aggression.”
“We’re friends to this day,” she offers. “I mean we’re ‘Facebook Friends.'”
At 100 minutes, “Constitution” plays a bit long. But if you’re going to Broadway, 60 minutes will never do.
Schreck fumes and jokes, rages and comes close to tears along the way, with a break only for her co-star Iverson telling the story of the “character” from her life that he’s playing and personal experiences and challenges he’s faced in regards to his rights in America.
And a third act “debate” with a new version of young Heidi, fourteen-year old (then) “Constitution” debater and speaker Rosedely Ciprian, plays to a live audience better than it does as something you passively take in as a TV viewer.
But as food-for-thought watching goes, this election season performance could not be more timely as our lifelong Constitution fan and expert reminds us, in fact and in anecdote, how our founding document is more flexible than the Antonin Scalias of history have ever believed, that it is a “living document” written by folks, flawed as they no doubt were, who recognized “Who we are now might not be what we will become.”
And what we need, more than many of the amendments that the country’s political, economic and ecological crises scream out for, is a Court made up of jurists who remember that.
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, some adult subject matter
Cast: Heidi Schreck, Mike Iveson, Rosdely Ciprian
Credits: Directed by Marielle Heller, script by Heidi Schreck. An Amazon release, on Amazon streaming.
Running time: 1:43