Right or Left, What the Constitution Means to Me at Main Street Speaks to You

Seán Patrick Judge and Shannon Emerick in What the Constitution Means to Me at Main Street Theater.
Seán Patrick Judge and Shannon Emerick in What the Constitution Means to Me at Main Street Theater. Photo by Pin Lim / Forest Photographer

No matter on what side of the political aisle you choose to sit, Heidi Schreck's buoyant, autobiographical What the Constitution Means to Me will speak to you. Those leaning left will like its anarchic themes, its powerful feminist message, its willingness to unearth past wrongs and set them right. Those listing right will applaud its even-handedness, its warm heart, its willingness to unearth past wrongs and set them right. There's something for everybody in this ecumenical political debate that quickly veers into the personal – Schreck's personal – that squarely hits the universal.

Now playing at Main Street Theater, this piece of political theater is diatribe, screed, confession, and diary. At 15, Schreck (a gloriously alive Shannon Emerick) visited American Legions across the nation to debate the Constitution. Her winnings paid for her college education.

We begin in such a place, neatly conjured by set designer Brandi Alexander with paneled walls, grimy linoleum floor, a gallery of past and current serviceman from the local legion arrayed across the back wall, and a gigantic American flag stretching along the walls. A lectern sits center stage, as do pitchers of water and glasses, set for the debate. The audience is seated in three sections around the stage. Main Street has added seats on the floor in front of the podium as if we're actually in an old-time Legion room. The look is effective and atmospheric.

But soon, the young Schreck discards her youthful pretext and becomes the woman she is today, looking back on her life and disclosing her ancestors' life in wild west Washington state. All the while she discusses the Constitution, roaming through the audience at first, and how it failed these abused women of the past. People of color, indigenous persons, and mail-order brides receive their honored place in this forgotten history.

We lap up these stories through Emerick's radiant performance. It's non-stop. She's given countless multi-faceted portrayals in her career, always intelligent and gut-felt, but this just might be her best role yet. One of Houston theater's most accomplished actors, Emerick flies in this role, imbuing the performance with a wondrous extemporaneous quality, as if she's making it up as she debates and reminisces. Laced throughout with humor and an abiding indignation of a prophet, Emerick soars as she describes our founding document as “hot and steamy,” as she races through the knotty sections of Amendments Nine and Fourteen, all while relating our uniquely American set of laws and rights to her family's and her own personal stories. We're mesmerized.

Overseeing the debate and watching dispassionately from the sidelines is the Legionnaire (Seán Patrick Judge), who sets the rules and and manages the stopwatch. Soon, he, too, will morph into Heidi's companion on her journeys while a teenager. He's the antithesis of the men throughout Heidi's family saga; he's sweet and doesn't allow his manliness to cancel his empathy. Judge's performance is detailed, breezy, accurate.

Domestic abuse, unwanted pregnancy, immigration, abortion, the Civil Rights Act, Patrick Swayze, the Supreme Court, sock monkeys, and “penumbra” rights are mashed up in Schreck's breathless portrait, but treated with respect and, sometimes, utter disgust. (Not Swayze, of course. He was young Heidi's dream lover.) Directed with a strong hand by Sophia Watt (Main Street's The Oldest Boy, Rec Room's Dance Nation), Constitution, like its age-old namesake, lives and breathes.

The last 15 minutes of the one-acter is the Coda, where a young woman, like the young Schreck, debates Emerick playing herself. The topic: should the Constitution be abolished? Portrayed by teen actress Elizabeth Barnes (Joan of Arc in Main Street's Mother of the Maid), the Debater and this section is not needed. It doesn't illuminate the play or make any definitive statement on its own. It's more gimmick than denouement. We got it twice before.

Whether you're red state or blue, this bipartisan paean will suit you. It's thought-provoking, worthy of its own after-show debate, and provides the opportunity to watch one of Houston's finest actors at the height of her mastery. Go, vote yes.

What the Constitution Means to Me continues through October 15 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays. Pride Night: October 5 at 6 p.m. at Main Street Theater- Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit $39-$59.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover