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The US Constitution is nothing if not a tangle of contradictions. From the start, it has variously been both the key and the impediment to freedom, both the suffocating grip of long-dead framers and a living, breathing document, somehow all at the same time. Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, now onstage at the Arden, takes on the multifarious nature of its knotted subject—for better and for worse.
Directed by Jennifer Childs and performed by Jessica Bedford, What the Constitution Means to Me is an extended monologue that serves as both ode to and interrogation of its titular document. For Schreck (here, both playwright and central character), it has been a lifelong fascination. As a 15-year-old, she participated in constitutional debate contests around the country orating on the Constitution’s evergreen value and earning her college tuition in prize money. What was it, she asks, both then and now, that so compels her about our founding document?
Warmth and focus
In Schreck’s pursuit of answers, Bedford offers an endearingly warm yet laser-focused performance. She captures the measured excitement of the high-school debater, from lambasting Supreme Court justices of yesteryear to nerding out over the penumbral beauty of the Ninth Amendment. Her stories seem to arrive in single exhalations; that they are always legible is a testament to the precision of her breathlessness.
It’s a mode that breathes life into the most poignant of Schreck’s observations, particularly in her excavation of her family’s history. In tracing the women who came before her, she comes to understand the perils of maternal life in the US, what the Constitution must have meant to them. Her great-great-grandmother Theresa, in what would otherwise be a footnote on a sepia-toned family tree, is given new life; her death of melancholia at age 36 is seen for the tragedy that it is. We see how family trauma rippled from the founding document, how that same trauma continues to shape us today.
Around these affecting episodes, however, the play falters in its execution of a contemporary dialogue. As much as it textually aspires to challenge the Constitution, it cannot help but gaze wide-eyed at America’s storied institutions with a Sorkin-esque liberalism that becomes its fatal flaw. Take the play’s setting, for instance, in an American legion hall in Washington state. A wall of black-and-white portraits looms behind Schreck; a legionnaire watches from the side and occasionally steps in to speak (Brian McCann, in an underdeveloped role). The recreation paints the hall as a hallowed space as if parliamentary debate were tantamount to a sermon on the mount.
We are thus presented with arguments that seem designed to soothe rather than inflame, so comfortably are they nested in the extant pillars of classical liberalism. It isn’t that Schreck’s ideas don’t have merit, but rather that there is a limit to her form of choice. Particularly in the play’s last act, she will offer talking points and statistics that are broadly progressive in their scope. The audience nods with satisfaction, sometimes even cheers. There is no provocation, no discomfort, for that is not the aim. We have instead a closed loop; not a catalyst for change, but a monument to itself.
The show becomes, in the end, a perfect macrocosm of Schreck’s constitutional debate contests all those years ago. When she spoke as a teenager to the Constitution’s value, she did so to a room full of men chomping cigars, sated with her espousal of their beliefs. It was less about her words and more about their applause. Now, with her play, the argument has changed, but the form is startlingly the same. The play so rigidly adheres to its discursive ideals that it never stops to ask why this must be its mode of argumentation. Rather than offering a path forward, it only seems to point back in.
Discourse as performance
At the end of the play, Bedford sheds the role of Schreck to simply become herself and welcomes Lily Chancey, a local high-school debater, to the stage. She is here to take a podium and spar with Bedford on the enduring value of the Constitution, in what is effectively Schreck debating her younger self. It’s an admittedly entertaining back-and-forth, particularly for the crackling energy Chancey brings to the stage, matching Bedford’s stamina without any sense of strain.
Their debate has the unfortunate effect, however, of doubling down on the notion of discourse as performance. Bedford and Chancey throw down their best retorts; the audience alternately boos and cheers. It’s a conclusion to the play that, like the Constitution, underscores the gap between its ideals and what it ultimately achieves.
What, When, Where
What the Constitution Means to Me. By Heidi Schreck, directed by Jennifer Childs. $30-$60. Through December 10, 2023, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Arden is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be audio-described and open-caption performances on Friday, November 17, at 7pm and Saturday, November 18, at 2pm.
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