Emilyn Toffler, Mike Iveson, and Cassie Beck standing in a line on the set of What the Constitution Means to Me in the moment before their debate begins
Emilyn Toffler, Mike Iveson, and Cassie Beck in What the Constitution Means to Me Credit: Joan Marcus

Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me debuted in 2017, which already feels like half a century ago, what with a pandemic and a presidential election. Not to mention the incompetent/unhinged reaction to those two events from both the previous administration and the nihilist death cult masquerading as a political party that is still deeply in thrall to TFG. Oh, and a Supreme Court that has been loaded up with extremists appointed by TFG and the cult.

A Pulitzer finalist and Tony nominee after it moved to Broadway in 2019, Schreck’s autobiographical show/lecture/cri de coeur was playing at Broadway Playhouse in March of 2020 when COVID-19 changed everything.

That production featured Maria Dizzia, who played the role of “Heidi.” The current touring production, which has another (shorter-than-originally-announced) run courtesy of Broadway in Chicago, has Cassie Beck stepping into Heidi’s civics-nerd shoes. (Oliver Butler is still the director of note.) And she fills them with terrific aplomb as she guides us through aspects of the U.S. Constitution that should both trouble us and inspire us.

Schreck paid her way through college decades ago with earnings she picked up by winning speech competitions about the constitution at American Legion posts around the country. The conceit in the show is that she (or rather, Beck-as-Schreck) will deliver a simulacrum of that speech, in which she posits that the constitution is not a patchwork quilt, as her long-ago opponent, Becky Dobbler, claimed. Rather, she makes a convincing case that the constitution is a crucible, “hot and sweaty.” 

But for those just joining us after 230-some years, “We the people” haven’t always been served well by that crucible. By incorporating more and more of her own family’s history, particularly the history of domestic violence suffered by the generations before her (a pattern that stopped with her own parents’ relationship), we see that the “hot and sweaty” part of history and jurisprudence is remembering that “the people” include a lot of marginalized and oppressed folks whose lives have mostly been weighed in the scales by old white men of means. (Mike Iveson, who returns in the role of the American Legion host and as himself, shares his stories as a white cis gay man who has still felt his share of threats over the years.)

What the Constitution Means to Me
Through 11/7: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 11/7, 7:30 PM, Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut, broadwayinchicago.com, $26.50-$106.50.

I saw Schreck’s show last year right after the election, when Amazon Prime streamed a recording of her Broadway performance. Beck’s performance avoids mimicking Schreck, who makes a point of saying in the script that she’s not going to be aping adolescent mannerisms in the show. She’s solid, funny, warm, and fully connected to the story and the audience.

The show’s fulcrum is Schreck’s examination of Amendment Nine: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage other rights retained by the people.” What this amendment did, in the eyes of Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, was establish a “penumbra” in which “rights of privacy and repose” could be asserted. To put it probably too plainly: just cuz the constitution doesn’t say a specific right exists, that doesn’t mean you don’t have it.

Douglas talked about the penumbral effects of the Ninth Amendment in the Griswold v. Connecticut case of 1965, which established that married couples had a right to buy contraception. (The “privacy” underpinnings of this decision laid the groundwork for Roe v. Wade eight years later, and if you think the antichoicers aren’t gunning to also overturn Griswold, you’re hopelessly naive.) 

As Beck’s Heidi points out, Douglas was actively involved in an extramarital affair with a woman several decades his junior at the time of the Griswold case. (According to Schreck, several other justices at that time were also stepping out on their marriages, and according to Bruce Allen Murphy’s 2003 Douglas biography, Wild Bill, Douglas’s third wife, Joan Martin, told friends “he beats me up all the time.”) 

So part of what Constitution does, in addition to establishing the deeply personal and historical consequences of SCOTUS decisions for we the little people, is point out that the bigger people making those decisions are themselves inevitably compromised and affected by their own histories. (NPR’s Nina Totenberg told a great story many years ago about Justice Antonin Scalia railing in a discussion about an affirmative action case that such provisions were an assault on the meritocracy. Sandra Day O’Connor allegedly leaned over, touched his thigh, and sweetly asked, “But Nino—how do you think I got my job?”) One of the funniest parts of the show is when we get to hear audio recordings of the Griswold arguments, featuring a lot of uncomfortable throat-clearing as these men discuss the finer points of preventing pregnancy.

It’s less funny, however, when we hear Scalia indulge in pedantic pettifoggery over the word “shall” in the audio of arguments for the 2005 Castle Rock v. Gonzales case.

Jessica Lenehan Gonzales, a woman in Castle Rock, Colorado, filed an order of protection against her estranged husband. She sued the local police department for failing to enforce that order after he abducted and murdered their three daughters. Scalia essentially argued that just because a law says that police departments “shall” enforce the law, that doesn’t mean they HAVE to do it. So basically that gutted the Violence Against Women Act. (Also, for those who argue that reforming or defunding the police will lead to less “protection” for citizens from the police: SCOTUS has already told the cops they aren’t legally required to protect us. So there’s that.) 

It’s clear in Beck’s sorrowful retelling of this story that Schreck sees clear connections between the violence her mother and grandmother suffered at the hands of her step-grandfather, and the miscarriage of justice in the Castle Rock case. And when Beck lets out the “Greek tragedy” wail that Schreck identifies as common to all the women in her family, we get it. Hell, you don’t even need a dark family history of violence to agree with Schreck’s observation that “Maybe it’s just the appropriate response to everything right now.” 

Schreck’s show also points out that the 14th Amendment’s due process clause specifically protects the rights of all people in the U.S., regardless of citizenship status. At one quietly gut-wrenching moment, Beck points out that this means that “nothing and no one can be taken away from you” without due process. A nice idea. Tell it to the refugees separated from their families at our southern border.

So the conundrum is that we have a constitution that provides many ways to amend and improve itself, but a political system enshrined within that same document that thwarts the pace of change. (Hi, Electoral College!) I mean, I was volunteering on the campaign to ratify the ERA 43 years ago, and I sure as hell didn’t think it would still be absent from my country’s constitution this far into the 21st century.

So should we scrap the whole thing and start over?

The last part of this 100-minute show involves “Heidi” debating a young person. (On the night I saw it, Emilyn Toffler, a trans student from Los Angeles, took the “abolish” side, while Beck’s Schreck took the side of “keep.” Jocelyn Shek alternates in the role.) A member of the audience gets to decide the winner of the debate—the theatrical equivalent of the Electoral College, if you will.

I’m not going to tell you where I come down on that. Let’s leave it in the privacy penumbra. But I will tell you that What the Constitution Means to Me is a smart, heartfelt show that is, like the document it’s talking about, not always perfect in its framing. (One wonders what this show would be like from the point of view of a Black woman, for starters.) But both Schreck’s script and Beck’s performance are in tune with the fact that they’re offering us just one woman’s path into understanding how we got where we are, and how we might find a way out of the darkness. 

It’s up to us to find that penumbra between despair and hope, and take action.