Call it stealth theater. In the disarming introduction to her play "What the Constitution Means to Me," Heidi Schreck holds forth an American Legion hall in her hometown of Wenatchee, Wash., And "abortion-free zone" where her 15-year-old self is competing in the regional semifinals of a Legion oratory contest. The debate topic, of course, is what the constitution means in the life of a high school girl from Wenatchee, Wash., In 1989.
Her mother, she tells us, managed to preserve (and treasure) the hunk of hair she cut off in high school. But for some reason, she threw out her daughter's prize-winning speech, leaving Schreck a choice but to make a version of the talk she gave thirty years ago, on a civilian stage like the one designed for Broadway by Rachel Hauck. (Highly waxed floor, a showy display of flags and a photo gallery of all-male worthies.)
The engaging writer-performer is all smiles and so we are, anticipating a naive speech from a bright high school girl about her personal appreciation of the US Constitution. But by the end of the show, we've been stirred ̵
The big reveal is that the actual word "woman" is not even mentioned in our Constitution. (Pause here for gasps from the audience.) Not once. Not in the Amendments that filled in the gaps. Not even in the Fourteenth Amendment that validates the equal rights of emancipated slaves. In fact, the Fifteenth Amendment guarantees the right to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" without acknowledging the inclusion of women in that right.
By now, Schreck is armed and dangerous. Testifying now as her grown-up self, she pays homage to all her family who suffered domestic abuse, going back four generations to her great-grandmother, a mail-order bride who was bought for $ 75 and died at age 36 or "melancholia" in a mental institution.
Although she never drops her unthreatening demeanor of all-American niceness, Schreck takes a more acerbic tone than she works up to her true subject: the rights that the Constitution does not specifically guarantee women . (The practice of birth control, she was reminded us, was a crime until it was legalized in 1972.)
We became it, she emphasizes when the fourteenth amendment, which asserts that "person" can be denied equal protection under the law, failed to spell out that women are also persons. We stayed again, when the Equal Rights Amendment failed.
To her credit, Schreck doesnâ € ™ t let righteous denounce curdle into polemics. On the contrary, she closes with an uplifting message: "The only thing holding us together right now as a country is a collective faith in this document." It is especially shrewd or here to conclude the show with a literal debate with a high-school orator. Rosdely Ciprian, a 14-year-old freshman, holds up here with admirable ease that the performance this reviewer caught. (Thursday Williams, a senior at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, plays the role three nights a week.) Honestly, how great is that?