How do you go about critiquing a document like The Constitution? Inarguably one of the two most important documents in creating the United States, questions about its interpretation remain integral to this day. At this very moment, the nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice and her interpretation of the document are at the center of the political world. For Heidi Schreck, the document played an integral life in her life. Her play, What the Constitution Means to Me, earned critical raves on Broadway. After two Tony nominations and finding itself up for a Pulitzer, Marielle Heller captured the show for Amazon Prime. The resulting film thrives on Schreck’s complex performance. The play rightly earns its place alongside Hamilton and American Utopia as the latest theater production to find a small screen home.
Schreck fits a one-woman show inside a larger play with What the Constitution Means to Me. She begins her story with her memories of competing in local competitions about the importance of the Constitution. Each event provided her the opportunity to dissect the document, and over time, she began to understand her own life through this prism. Her story verges in and out of the framing device, allowing her to understand how the rights created and denied her to her family created generational trauma.
Schreck’s essential performance explodes off the screen. The lighthearted tone that she begins the show slowly morphs into an act of vulnerability. She opens up with intimate details about her life that will make some people squirm. Moments of self-reflection and love come out through her honest dialogue. Schreck confronts the demons within her own family, questioning her relationships with the women who shaped her. She does not shy away from anything, and that act on its own is courageous. There’s no question that Schreck believes in our government’s power, and that progress has been made. Yet her ideology and brilliance allow her to use the document we hold most dear under a microscope.
Directed by Marielle Heller, the camera helps to create an intimate portrayal. Not unlike a standup special, Schreck uses the audience to her advantage. However, Heller’s choice of camera angles, close-ups, and pacing make sure that we do not lose the emotional affect of Schreck’s performance. Heller never steps over Schreck’s performance, letting it speak for itself. Yet in less deft hands, the show could feel stale. Instead, the heart of What the Constitution Means to Me never falters, making it a wonderful viewing experience.
Ultimately not as visually innovative as other recent Broadway shows converted to film, the heart and wit of What the Constitution Means to Me deserves to be loved just as passionately. Schreck’s story speaks to the moment, and the film brings an essential piece of theater to the world. There’s no question that Schreck could have a career past this show. However, it is hard to imagine anyone performing such an intimate script without her. The influence of What the Constitution Means to Me is only just beginning. This film will allow it to reach far more people than it would have on Broadway.