The Guthrie Bursts Back Onstage with “What the Constitution Means to Me”

The not-quite-one-person show puts the Supreme Court on trial in an electric, timely performance
Cassie Beck gives a compelling performance in "What the Constitution Means to Me"
Cassie Beck gives a compelling performance in “What the Constitution Means to Me”

Photo by Joan Marcus

The Guthrie Theater is back with its first in-person show since the spring of 2020—and What the Constitution Means to Me picks up the thread as though the doors never closed (although, yes, masks and proof of vaccination are required).

Through October 24, the Guthrie makes the first stop on a cross-country run for the Pulitzer- and Tony-nominated play. It debuted in 2018 and sees actor-playwright Heidi Schreck (as played here by Cassie Beck) unpack her existence using the terms that our Founding Fathers and Supreme Court justices have provided.

Seemingly, the whole thing unfolds in Schreck’s head, making the show like one big thought experiment. When she was a teenager, Schreck travelled the country competing in Constitutional debates. She rattled off amendments, summed up the nation’s founding document, and expounded on her personal connection to it for crowds of older, mostly white men. Her winnings paid her college tuition. But now, in her mid-40s, she discovers that her mom (who devised this scheme in the first place) at some point threw away her prized speech.

So, Schreck tries to resuscitate her own 15-year-old brilliance. On the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, this happens in a box set that resembles one of the ’70s-stained American Legion halls where Schreck would have showboated her genuine love for the Constitution. A sniffy Legionnaire with Don Knotts energy (played by Mike Iveson) is the only person to rein her in. But because this is her daydream, her thought experiment, she quickly steps outside the bounds.

In show notes, Schreck says she developed much of the play through “extemporaneous storytelling.” The result is experimental in form. Beck, playing Schreck, directly addresses the audience (a packed house at Wednesday’s performance), and because you aren’t really expected to suspend your disbelief, that makes it all the easier. The play’s framing elements—the script, the stage, the audience members—simply provide a conduit through which the playwright can untangle a question of often startling relevance: What is her personal connection to the Constitution?

In aid of this mission, Schreck digs through four generations of her family. At turns, you feel like you’re watching a gutting one-person show, a quirky stand-up set, a TED Talk, a college lecture on the Constitution, and a therapy session. Schreck doesn’t just relate conflicted anecdotes about herself and the women who came before her; she contextualizes their lives using regional history and Supreme Court cases. For example, the abuse that women in Schreck’s family endured links up with her lively dissection of Castle Rock v. Gonzales—the ruling that police in a Colorado town were not required by law to enforce a restraining order. The plaintiff’s estranged husband had recently killed her three children.

The show, of course, is timely. Another Schreck quote in the program anticipates this: “It’s also helpful for the performer to allow whatever might be happening in the country that day to affect their performance.” This year’s Texas abortion law looms, given Schreck’s focus on the Constitution’s intersections with gender politics. And audience members may find some of the material triggering. As Schreck turns over the pertinent, heavy topics of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and abortion, her resolve to do so feels scholarly, sensitive, and outraged all at once. I couldn’t help but wonder if the person tapping on their phone a few seats to my left wanted distraction from some of that.

Still, Beck’s energy consistently and infectiously lifts. She balances the many notes of her demanding role beautifully—a bright stage presence in a yellow blazer who defies the easy comparison to Leslie Knope because Schreck’s idealism points her toward what she finds most dire about the country. The “Putnam County Spelling Bee” promise, of an adult playing a precocious kid, cedes the stage early on. But, doffing that sunny jacket, she remains plucky, embodying an earnest, albeit anxious, charisma.

At an hour and 40 minutes, the play has no intermission, although there is a second act. Audience members receive pocket Constitutions, and Los Angeles-based high school student Jocelyn Shek takes the stage to engage Beck in debate—an improvised show of wit that will close out each performance. (The fourth wall by now seems fully razed, yet Beck still appears to be playing Schreck.) It was an electric segment on Wednesday. They ended with a brief get-to-know-you portion as touching as it was grounding, seemingly so the night could end with unequivocally feel-good vibes.

Courageous and raw, the whole thing is also trenchant and amusing, a heated, witty, educational, and exasperated exploration of a document and its interpreters—and the people affected by both. With laughs! Overall, it felt totally of a piece with Trump-era theater.

What the Constitution Means to Me is playing at the Guthrie Theater through Oct. 24