In 2019, I sat in the balcony of the Helen Hayes Theatre. My social media circles had been abuzz over the show I was about to see: What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck. There was a distinctive vibe in the theatre that day, one that was a far cry from the play I had just seen: The Ferryman. To say the audience was excited about seeing Schreck’s play would be an understatement. And, to the audience’s credit, what I witnessed that day felt like a historical moment. Here was a definitive feminist play that tackled domestic violence, reproductive health rights, and the general second-class citizenship that women experience in the United States. Under the Trump presidency, Heidi Schreck’s autobiographical, semi-solo tour de force felt like a punch in the gut at the time. While some plays (The Ferryman, for instance) can’t always answer the eternal “Why this play? Why now?” questions, What the Constitution Means to Me answered these questions and then some. This was a play we needed in 2019.
Sadly, What the Constitution Means to Me might be more relevant in 2023 than it was four years ago. The show, currently playing in a terrific production at Main Street Theater in Houston, feels like necessary theatre in today’s U.S. cultural climate in which Roe v. Wade has been overturned, reproductive healthcare access has receded, abortion has become criminalized in some states, and domestic violence and general hatred toward women rages on. We might be moving forward in some ways, but, holy hell, have we got work to do!
What the Constitution Means to Me is an autobiographical play in which the playwright (Heidi Schreck) originally played the role of Heidi. When Heidi talked about her own abortion or the domestic violence her grandmothers’ experienced, she wasn’t playing a character. She was dramatizing the cycle of violence that has perpetuated her life. This shit was real. And Schreck’s performance was gripping, charismatic, and easily one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
Schreck’s masterful writing is on full display at Main Street Theater. The play loses nothing without Schreck. Shannon Emerick, in a star turn as Heidi, has the audience eating out the palm of her hand by the time she strips off the Heidi mask and ends the play as Shannon, as herself. Emerick is a master storyteller who perfectly balances the emotional weight and comedy of the story. After all, What the Constitution means to me might sound like a heavy drama, but it’s also really funny. And Emerick does much of the heavy lifting in making this play work beyond the original performance of Heidi Schreck.
While What the Constitution Means to Me is nearly a solo show, it also features two supporting actors who take the show to the next level. Playing the Legionnaire, Seán Patrick Judge portrays how the patriarchy and masculinity have influenced his own experiences of being a man in the United States. Judge’s performance isn’t preachy; he’s perfectly calculated in how he balances Emerick’s dazzling performance. The trio is rounded out by the Debater, a powerful Elizabeth Barnes. At 17 years old, Barnes’ expert debate skills and strong stage presence against two in-form veterans show that Houston theatre is in good hands for years to come. The final debate between Barnes and Emerick is a treat to watch. The audience at the September 17 performance I attended loved the production’s final act and fully grasped the importance of Emerick and Barnes going head-to-head to debate if we should keep or abolish the Constitution.
What the Constitution Means to Me might sound preachy. It’s not. It might sound like over-the-top liberalism. It’s not. It might sound like a play that is only for women. It’s not. What it is is a timely play that clearly lays out how the Constitution (its pros, its cons, its in-betweens) is a bipartisan issue. We are all implicated. And what a great play to get that conversation started.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
This post was written by Trevor Boffone.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.