There is no denying the charm and disarming nature of Heidi Schreck. She is whip-smart, delightfully funny, but underneath that billowy, sunny demeanor is a life lived, one that has had its share of triumphs, heartaches, and ultimately a resolve to keep going and keep fighting.
What allows her to fight is a document that is unique to the United States – the Constitution. Its amendments and commitment to craft legalese ensures that all men, women and children are created equal.
Well, not completely.
Schreck, who is now performing the world premiere of her play “What the Constitution Means to Me” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre readily acknowledges the benefits of this document. But even though the document does lots of good, it is also a living document, one that puts itself at the whims of its interpreters.
Schreck’s play, directed with an effective, disjointed and stylized staging by Oliver Butler, is reimagined based on a powerful adolescent memory. At 15, Schreck spent a ton of time battling it out with other precocious teens throughout the state of Washington at various American Legion speech contests. The speeches were loaded with pedantic names and big dreams, and for Shreck, her skill with the spoken word won over many of the old, cigar chomping men with uniform caps. So much so that tuition to the University of Oregon was mostly covered by those cash prizes.
The show has a different feel to it. It starts off in full house light and takes on more of a conversational tone, with some gentle, warm laughs at the onset. But the play starts in earnest via the entrance of the American Legion judge, played with a stoic hilarity by former Bay Area actor Danny Wolohan. He runs a tight contest, rings bells with passion and scolds the audience for breaking the rules, such as clapping at the absolute wrong time.
What comes across more than anything is Schreck’s knowledge of the document, which showcases strongly her ability to exploit its contents. While certain amendments help protect citizens, Schreck makes the case that those same amendments have done much to harm, especially women and people of color. Take for instance the all-male Connecticut Supreme Court ruling in the case of Griswold vs. Connecticut, a case that debated marriage privacy and the right to birth control and a case that was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The issue is not that this case was debated, but that it was debated by nine men, nary a woman in sight. Ridiculous! The only way it would be even more ridiculous is if more than half of those same justices were having affairs.
(Cue uncomfortable coughing fits by said justices)
The entire 90 minutes moves this way. It is not shy to share its charms, and becomes extremely personal, with Schreck sharing stories of the previous three generations of women in her family and their struggles. Some of those struggles are passed on to her – some painful and some sublimely uproarious. Most of this is shared as that American Legion judge sat, with Schreck looking over at him quizzically from time to time as he stared ahead. This was never not funny, an automatic quick laugh dropped on the audience here and there. Even Wolohan broke character in a sort of odd way to share a few thoughts of his own. Don’t get me wrong, his story is lovely and warm. But it’s a bit of a stretch to see how it connected to the rest of the play.
The final 15 minutes takes on a bit more of an urgent tone, with an actual high school debater who chooses a side in an impromptu debate with Schreck. Either we keep the constitution and all its imperfections, or we scrap it and start over. That’s the contention. After all, it was ratified in 1788, which might as well be B.C. based on how different the world was then.
In addition to the lively debate, there is a question and answer session where both the student (on this night was St. Mary’s College High School student Anaya Matthews, who performs in rotation with James Logan High School’s Wisdom Kunitz) and Schreck. It’s an awkward little ditty, where they quizzed each other about favorite books, sounds and general random information.
What to make of this? It’s awkward and disjointed and doesn’t always seem to connect.
But you know what? So is the Constitution. It’s awkward and disjointed and doesn’t always seem to connect. The fact that it lives and affects every aspect of our lives, shaping our existence in these United States, for better or worse, is what gives it its power. And at the end of the day, there are two women at different phases of their lives sitting on the stage, chatting away. The information they shared may be trivial, but its their voices we hear. Their goofy, silly, imperfect and powerful feminine voices.
In a world where women often must shout to be heard, a play about the Constitution which ended with two women just sharing their thoughts takes on its own kind of poignancy.
More than anything, it’s simply a lovely, lovely sound.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “What the Constitution Means to Me”
Written by and starring Heidi Schreck
Directed by Oliver Butler
The Word: Moves at different speeds, but Schreck is a disarming, knowledgeable performer and presents lots of great information to glean over.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
May 3rd – June 17th
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets and information, call (510) 657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org