Theater review: Despite no-frills set, fiesty, fiery ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ ideal for The Bushnell

·6 min read

At first glance, Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” seems like an odd, out-of-proportion programming choice for the Bushnell Broadway series, the most sparse and laid-back tour since the two-person, no-set, table-bound, script-in-hand play “Love Letters” played there in 2016.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” mainly has one person in it, who is mainly giving a prepared debate speech. In all previous versions of the show, that person was Schreck herself, who first wrote and performed a variation of this autobiographical piece a decade ago. The tour’s star is Cassie Beck, who appeared in Schreck’s play “The Consultant” at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre seven years ago and brings the same friendly, funny, vaguely sassy appeal to this show. Beck is actually playing Schreck, until toward the show’s end she announces that she is really Cassie Beck, as whom she will engage in a live debate with an actual teenage debate specialist.

So far that sounds like talking, talking, and talking about talking.

There’s a set design, but it’s a purposely nondescript old American Legion hall, with over 150 photos of veterans adorning a back wall of a meeting hall furnished with cheap chairs and a podium.

When a change in lighting is required, or a taped recording needs to be played, the star directly addresses the show’s stage manager, whose name we learn is Nicole. In its writing and in its presentation, “What the Constitution Means to Me” aspires to be as down-to-earth as possible.

For a Bushnell Broadway show (coming a few months after “Escape to Margaritaville,” with “My Fair Lady” up next), this is a true anomaly. There’s not even a merchandise table out in the lobby, though all attendees do get to leave the show with a small souvenir: a free pocket-sized copy of the Constitution of the United States, provided by the ACLU.

So, few frills, and may seem like school more than playtime. Yet “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a feisty, fiery and very theatrical display of ideas, idealism, feminism, love, honor, anger, sadness, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Its power and grandiosity come not from a fancy design or a big singing dancing chorus but from the human spirit, and from centuries of American democracy.

Remember the other kind of show that works so well in The Bushnell’s main Mortensen Hall: the Connecticut Forum discussions, where great minds tackle weighty subjects. Compared to those forums, “What the Constitution Means to Me” has at least as many chairs and at least as many major topics to discuss:

Abortion. Violence against women. Injustice. Racism. Sexism. Citizenship. Schreck, now with Beck as her avatar, scrolls through these and other issues in a variety of attitudes and styles. There’s the scholarly approaches, quoting Constitutional amendments by heart. There’s the confessional approach, lamenting how small changes in official wording or courtroom discussion could’ve bettered the lives of millions. There’s glorying in the positive wonders of government, something that feels pretty good to share with others in well-populated theater.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” is generally a small, delicate, listen-in-close piece about democracy, independence, social values and how those things can affect what we believe and how we grow up. Those bits can make you go quiet, even tear up a bit.

But Schreck also makes sure she dramatizes her youthful love for the Constitution, some of the wild imaginings of her childhood and some of the interesting career choices of her ancestors. Her grandmother was a log roller, a skill which is demonstrated hilariously through full-body sweeping gestures that bring Beck back and forth across the stage several times.

The piece switches from quasi-reality to theatrical on a dime. Fourth walls are broken. Shows exist within shows within shows. The most realistic seeming moments turn out to be pivotal structural elements in a meticulously constructed yet endlessly unpredictable stage show.

A male character who sits idly at the side of the stage for most of the performance eventually gives up the pretense altogether and reveals himself to be Gabriel Marin, an actor who shares some of his own “personal” (scripted) childhood memories and

Marin is an invaluable player in what is otherwise Beck/Schreck’s show. He’s a mysterious, benign and comforting presence, and by being so subdued and off-to-the-side he stands out. He gets a few laughs of his own. He represents compassionate men as well as stereotypical middle-aged men and centuries of patriarchal rule, just by sitting them. Like Beck, he brings a different vibe than the actor who did the Broadway run, Mike Iveson, who brought a goofiness to it.

Those who’ve seen Schreck perform “What the Constitution Means to Me” herself, whether off Broadway or on Broadway or in the filmed version of the stage show now airing on Amazon Prime should be intrigued by what Cassie Beck brings to the role. Beck gets some laughs where Schreck didn’t, emphasizes some points that Schreck said more matter-of-factly and otherwise plays variations on the themes of Schreck’s own life and words. Yet she seems as natural in the role as Schreck did. You believe that woman onstage had these experiences. You believe that she is telling them to you informally. You believe that she is an expert debater. You trust her, and you appreciate her passion, and you continue to ponder what she said as you leave the theater clutching your pocket-sized Constitution.

The show seems eternally timely. It moved from being an off Broadway sensation to Broadway a couple years ago because Schreck’s livelong fondness for the U.S. Constitution provided an impassioned response when it seemed like that historic document was being besmirched during the pesidential election. The play’s main theme is women’s rights, and it notes recent challenges to Roe v. Wade as well as the Constitution’s lack of specific language which could have helped protect women from slavery, domestic abuse and second-class status

Wednesday’s performance at The Bushnell happened on the night that news broke of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement, paving the way for President Biden to nominate a Black woman (as he’s promised) for a seat on the court.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” puts the news in context. It honors oratory and meticulous legal writing, but also personal confessions and raw emotions. It’s also a heck of a show, with twists and turns and pathos and grand speeches, with a heroine you won’t forget. Something else you won’t forget: What the Constitution means to her.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” by Heidi Schreck, starring Cassie Beck, runs Jan. 26-30 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. $32-$99.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at