Civics is not a course usually taught in schools, and if we ever needed proof that it ought to be part of the curriculum, Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me provides it. Schreck’s play, which is at the Provincetown Theater through Dec. 3, is not a lesson but an entertainment, filled with humor, heartbreaking memories, anger at the Supreme Court, debates, audience participation, and fourth-wall-breaking twists. It’s anything but an in-depth probe into what the U.S. Constitution means, though Schreck, portrayed brilliantly by Anne Stott, does serve up a moving cri de coeur about the state of injustice today, mostly in terms of gender politics and race.
What the Constitution Means to Me premiered off-Broadway in 2017 and did a short Tony-nominated stint on Broadway in 2019 with Schreck playing herself onstage. It arrived as the Trump administration was stacking the Supreme Court with far-right justices (including one credibly accused in Senate hearings of attempted rape) who would finally overturn Roe v. Wade and threaten to revert the rule of law to the historical period in which the Constitution was created.
Schreck rails against this “originalist” thinking, but she starts the play off with her memory of participating as a teenager in an American Legion contest on “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Fifteen-year-old Heidi talks about the Constitution as a kind of witch’s “crucible” — a sweetly nonsensical metaphor — but it’s really just a jumping-off point for the adult Schreck to recall stories about her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother that are part of a long history of violence against women.
These family stories are powerful and tragic, and they hold the play’s fairly freeform structure together. But the real glue in the Provincetown production is Stott’s riveting performance. She navigates the varying tones of the play’s fragments with ease and charm, subtly shifting from political commentary and pointed irony to humorous observations of her own foibles, occasionally erupting with righteous accusations and deep-seated personal pain. At one point in the play, she has to switch from playing Heidi Schreck to playing herself, an actor named Anne Stott, and she does this seamlessly, carrying the audience along for the ride.
Ed Donovan, who plays the Legionnaire moderating Schreck’s speech as a 15-year-old, must also switch to playing himself, with touching reminiscences of his own, and does a fine job. Mia Lima, a Nauset High School student who shows up later on and plays only herself, adds the point of view of a contemporary teenager and a person of color with consummate grace. She participates in a debate with Stott about whether the Constitution should be junked or amended, with the audience acting as the jury, deciding who makes the most winning points.
Rebecca Berger, who did such a superlative job last fall directing the Provincetown Theater’s production of Tiny Beautiful Things, stages What the Constitution Means to Me less fancifully, but she still manages to keep things moving — and emotions in check — in a way that presents Schreck’s play as a coherent whole. Ellen Rousseau’s clever scenic design, with its cartoonishly black-and-white Legion Hall and raised stage, and Stephen Petrilli’s lucid lighting also do their part.
By the end, the play delivers a strong critique of the Constitution with the audience cheering along, asserting that it’s a document produced by white men to enshrine their privilege. Schreck reminds us that it took hard-fought amendments to give women the vote and to promise equal rights and protection under the law to every human being in the nation.
But the critique demonstrates little understanding of what the Constitution actually is — the blueprint of a government of a newly formed nation that overthrew a ruling monarchy in a violent revolution. The 13 states had strong feelings of sovereignty, and the Constitution sought to unify them as best it could. Much of what remains undemocratic in our government, such as the Electoral College and the Senate, is a result of that.
It also attempted to distill the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness into a government — that’s why there are so many checks and balances on political power by different branches, and that’s the inspiration for the Bill of Rights. The Constitution may have enshrined white privilege in 1789, but it also laid the lasting framework for unprecedented freedom.
It’s not so much a “flawed” document, as the play asserts, as it is a continuum that requires constant updating through amendments and interpretation by the courts. That’s why originalism and literalism are so antithetical to its success.
It’s not the Constitution that is sexist, classist, and racist — it’s us, and we have the responsibility to change and reinterpret it in the context of today’s world. Instead of blaming the Constitution for our problems, why not actually learn what it means?
Up for Debate
The event: What the Constitution Means to Me, a play by Heidi Schreck
The time: Through Dec. 3, Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. (no performance Thanksgiving Day); Sunday at 2 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St.
The cost: $60.25, including fees, at provincetowntheater.org or 508-487-7487