“What the Constitution Means to Me,” the hit play that took New York City by storm several years ago on Broadway has opened at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre, where it will run until December 3.
Simply put, the play is mainly a leftist feminist rant with the subject of abortion being the main centerpiece.
This is not to say that the work doesn’t raise some important questions, and is not eloquent in places. It is. But it is also a Trojan horse. The Constitution, after all, is meant to “unite” conservatives and progressives in a paternal sort of way, but in this play the underlying progressive messages (there are many) — despite the fact that the narrator’s personal stories have a heart rendering appeal — strike like hammer blows.
Meet Heidi (played by Jessica Bedford, who makes her Arden debut), a stand-in for the playwright herself, Heidi Schreck, who at fifteen made an art form of talking about, and debating other students her age on issues related to the Constitution in VFW posts throughout the Western United States. Schreck, who grew up outside Seattle, earned enough money from these debates to pay her way through college or, “a state school,” as she likes to remind audiences.
Directed by Jennifer Childs, Producing Artistic Director for 1812 Productions, Schreck’s “Constitution,” according to Childs is not only “gorgeous and funny,” but a work that explores the personal stories “of people who couldn’t vote, or who were not allowed to practice their religion or didn’t get read their Miranda rights.”
This autobiographical, largely solo performance takes place inside a generic looking VFW Post, decorated with multiple photographs of important military leaders and politicians, all of them male and all white (as Heidi points out in her monologue), and who constitute the only males in the play other than the attending Legionnaire (Brian McCann), who is aptly decked out in a VFW uniform.
The Legionnaire supplies Heidi with constitutional questions, and then times her responses.
Heidi talks about the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, her absolute favorites, mostly because the Ninth states that — as the playwright herself told Stephen Colbert on his TV talk show — “Just because a certain right is not listed in the Constitution, don’t assume that it’s not in the Constitution; after all, this is the Amendment that made birth control legal.”
Heidi as a teenager begins her talk on the Constitution in a rather bland high school way, but as time passes she switches gears and is suddenly saying how female bodies were left out of the Constitution, meaning that women at one point could not vote and were considered the property of their husbands.
And let’s not forget the ultimate assault on female bodies, the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, which leads to Heidi’s story of her own abortion, the result of a teenage one-night stand in the back seat of a car.
Heidi relates the trouble she experienced when she told her mother that she didn’t want to carry the baby to term, but in fact wanted an abortion.
Mother reacts with shock, although her reaction changes when Heidi grows up and her abortion becomes a memory. When adult Heidi reminds her mother of her reaction “back then,” mother shrugs it off as if it were nothing more than a trip to the dermatologist’s office.
Heidi asks her mother why she’s become so blasé about abortion.
Mother suggests that abortion has become, you know, mundane; Gloria Steinem had an abortion, Billie Jean King had an abortion, and so did Susan Sontag. (“When Susan Sontag had an abortion in the early 1950s, the abortion providers used no anesthetic and had to turn up the radio to smother her screams,” The Guardian reported in 2022.)
Throughout the long monologue, Heidi links the female abuse by males in her own family over four generations to the larger Constitutional issues regarding women.
The play’s time-tripping monologue has Heidi alternating between her teenage self and adult self, though sometimes these transitions are not clear and we don’t know “who” is speaking.
It almost doesn’t matter, though.
Heidi’s soliloquy zigzags into every woke category imaginable: LGBTQ+ rights, race, white privilege, gender equality, misogyny, domestic abuse, immigration (no mention of illegals or migrants, of course).
This cavalcade of issues might have been lifted from a lifetime of tweets from the desk of Elizabeth Warren, or Hillary Clinton.
(In real time, the play “Constitution” caught the eye of the Clinton family when all three attended the play a couple of years ago on Broadway. Hillary Clinton called it, “An empowering call to consider what it means to be a citizen” on X.)
While there are human situations described in the play that deserve our empathy and attention — such as when Heidi relates how her grandmother, and the other women in her family wept on the floor with their heads to the ground because of the way they were treated by the men in their life — other issues are more ideologically driven, including abortion and so- called voting rights (at least from a 2023 perspective.)
In the name of editorial balance, you’d think that the playwright would have cited one honorable male family figure — a remote uncle in a log cabin somewhere who was “good” — but she does not. Instead, one comes away believing that all of the playwright’s male ancestors were absolute scoundrels — every last uncle, nephew, grandfather or cousin.
This harsh rendering of “life” recalls an old feminist bumper sticker: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” even though Heidi claims that she really loves men.
It’s unfortunate that the highly energetic and obviously talented Jessica Bedford has to deliver so many lefty partisan lines. When the play played in New York at the time of the 2020 election, one alternative ending was to remind audiences to “go out and vote.” (Democrat, of course.)
When the Legionnaire finally takes center stage, he slowly begins to remove his clothes, layer by layer in a “where-is-this-going moment,” stopping short of an all-out striptease as he reveals he’s not what we think he is but as a young boy began to question his gender, so for a split-second we think he might be announcing something trans. But no, he reverts to plain vanilla, that being just a gay guy who has always been there for Heidi.
After this revelation, Heidi announces that the audience will hear a short debate between herself and a real 15-year-old from a local Philadelphia high school.
The well-spoken student, who could easily play Greta Thunberg in a bio-pic, advocated abolishing the Constitution (because writing and passing amendments takes too long). She also tells Heidi that the entire document needs to be ditched and written again from scratch by people like herself and Heidi, as well as climate change activists and Roe v. Wade reversal advocates.
A panel discussion, “Engage with the Art” is scheduled to take place on the Arden stage on November 11. Billed as “a discussion with leading local experts,” to discuss the issues highlighted in the play, these speakers include four left progressive university professors and social justice and reproductive rights advocates.
Let’s hear it for Philadelphia’s version of diversity and inclusion: Not one conservative voice will be a part of this discussion.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.