Jennifer Westfeldt and TJ Lancaster in “What the Constitution Means to Me.” (Don Ipock)
When she was 15 years old, Heidi Schreck embarked on a mission: to earn scholarship money by entering—and winning—a string of American Legion-sponsored speech contests about the U.S. Constitution. The endeavor enabled her to pay for college, and then paid off again decades later—though she couldn’t have known it at the time—when her autobiographical play, What the Constitution Means to Me, landed on Broadway in 2019, garnering multiple Tony nominations and becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Since then, Constitution has become one of the most-produced American plays, touring coast to coast and even into our living rooms (a videorecording of the off-Broadway production, released in 2020, is still streaming on Amazon Prime.) Now, Schreck’s high-spirited, high-stakes hit has made its way to Kansas City Rep’s Copaken Stage.
For this production, under the direction of Amy Anders Corcoran, stage-and-screen vet Jennifer Westfeldt—likely best known as the co-writer and star of the 2001 indie hit Kissing Jessica Stein—steps into the role Schreck originated. The fourth wall falls away immediately, as “Heidi” welcomes the audience to this onstage attempt to recreate her winning speech based on what she remembers of herself at 15. As she explains, even the set—an exaggerated version of the American Legion hall in Schrek’s native Wenatchee, Washington, with rows upon rows of headshots of stern male Legionnaires gazing down—is from an inexact teenage memory (and rendered masterfully by Rana Esfandiary, part of an all-female-identifying creative team).
As a budding pubescent, Heidi was obsessed with the Salem Witch Trials, theatre, and (especially) Patrick Swayze. Also, of course, the supreme law of the land: “The Constitution is a living document—that is what is so beautiful about it,” she says. “It is a living, warm blooded steamy document. It is hot and sweaty.” She waxes rapturously about the ninth amendment (the Constitution’s “penumbra,” according to Justice William O. Douglas, who found within it the right to privacy used to uphold the legality of abortion, same-sex marriage, and other rights) and the fourteenth, particularly the “equal protection” clause at the heart of the civil-rights movement.
Schrek’s excitable, comical dialogue and Westfeldt’s exuberant storytelling disarm us—and when the political becomes personal, the play hits its poignant stride. In a way that she says she wasn’t able to as a teenager, Heidi begins to connect our legal record to her family’s story—particularly four generations of women, whom our governing document—which never mentions the word “woman”—failed time and again to protect, from abuse, from injustice, from a system that codified the notion that women were less than.
Through the rays of darkness and light, Westfeldt isn’t alone. TJ Lancaster adds a delightful presence, first as the Legionnaire hosting Heidi’s contest, and then as “Mike,” the actor playing the legionnaire, who tells his own story as gay man dealing with concepts of “positive male energy.” The show culminates in a “live” parliamentary debate between Heidi and a local student (an ebullient Mia Cabrera, who alternates performances with Christina Short). The topic: Should the U.S. Constitution be abolished? The audience is encouraged to shout their approval or displeasure, and one member is ultimately chosen to determine the winner.
As you might suspect, a strong sense of improvisation courses throughout the show—the kind of spontaneity that can only be achieved through weeks of rehearsal of a script that has been meticulously honed. The Rep production doubles down by having Westfeldt occasionally step out of the role of “Heidi” and address us as herself (or, rather, the character of “Jen”). The results are mixed—obliterating the fourth wall, while also adding an unnecessary extra layer, reminding us that Heidi isn’t actually there.
Except, Schreck herself was in the house for this performance—having made her first trip to Kansas City to assume the role of audience member before taking the stage for a post-show talkback. She acknowledged that, after performing as herself thousands of times, she was finally able to enjoy her own true story as a play. Asked whether she could see herself stepping back into the lead, Schreck demurred, adding that she is delighted to see other producers and performers give it a life of its own.
After all, while it may be one woman’s deeply personal story, What the Constitution Means to Me is not an answer, but an open question—a living document with the power to touch us all.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way) through November 12. For more information, visit kcrep.org.