A Set as ‘Intense’ as the Stories the ‘Constitution’ Tells

Only three credited actors are onstage for any given performance of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Heidi Schreck’s searching oratory/memoir, now at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway. But the space can feel crowded — not only by the personal stories and civic history Ms. Schreck’s play invokes, but by a gallery of faces, four rows tall and several columns across, that stare unvaryingly down at her, and us, throughout.

Rachel Hauck’s diorama-like set, a heightened evocation of one of the American Legion halls in which a teenage Ms. Schreck once delivered prizewinning encomiums to the United States Constitution, includes many carefully selected details: a few carrot-colored banquet chairs; a flag with the insignia of the Legion post in Ms. Schreck’s hometown, Wenatchee, Wash.; a thin, functional carpet in a dingy shade of maroon.

But it is the wraparound wall of 163 photos depicting American Legion members — veterans from every United States conflict from World War I to our current war in Afghanistan — that provides the image audiences are most likely to remember.

It was certainly what caught Ms. Schreck’s attention when she first stepped onto Ms. Hauck’s set, in a 2017 production by Clubbed Thumb at the Wild Project, an off-off-Broadway space in the East Village.

“I walked in and had a visceral reaction of terror,” Ms. Schreck confessed recently. “I was like, ‘You have to take some of them down. It’s too much. It’s too many. I feel claustrophobic in here.’”

In retrospect, said Ms. Hauck, “I admit I made her a pretty merciless environment. I think it’s the meanest set I’ve ever designed.”

It emerged from the designer’s “gut response,” she said, to Ms. Schreck’s play, which even in its earliest drafts set out to interweave the fraught legacy of the nation’s founding document with the stories of the women in Ms. Schreck’s family, including herself. The set, Ms. Hauck concluded, “is as intense as the stories she tells.”

The photos didn’t come down in number, as Ms. Schreck first requested. Instead they multiplied, with the help of prop master Rapheal Mishler, who scoured the internet and gathered hundreds of choices. Rights to use the images were secured for Broadway, though not for previous runs at Berkeley Repertory Theater and New York Theater Workshop.

Ms. Hauck, working with the director Oliver Butler, also took pains to space the photos more tightly, as they found that fewer faces made each one stand out too individually. Now, as Mr. Butler put it, “it’s a bit more like wallpaper — it’s geometric.”

That’s not to say there aren’t individual touches for attentive viewers. In fact, the 163 total is a little misleading, as there are a handful of ringers in the mix.

On one wall there’s a picture of TV producer Norman Lear, who served in World War II and whose daughter Kate Lear is a co-producer for the show’s Broadway run.

Another wall features photos of Mr. Butler dressed in the signature garrison cap, as well as of the two actors who’ve played an onstage Legionnaire, Danny Wolohan and Mike Iveson. One theatregoer in Berkeley even excitedly recognized his own photo on the wall.

Ms. Schreck has particular affection for one face up there: that of the late James Melvin “Mel” Younkin, a World War II veteran from Wenatchee who chaired the American Legion oratorical contests at which Ms. Schreck excelled, and who later traveled with young Heidi and her family to competitions at other Legion posts in the Pacific Northwest.

A version of Mr. Younkin is embodied onstage by Mr. Iveson, who plays him as a stern, judgmental figure — “a flesh-and-blood part of the set,” as Mr. Iveson put it — until a monologue late in the show adds nuance to both the real-life veteran and the actor who plays him.

There are also invisible touches typical of Ms. Hauck’s architectural approach to scenic design. (She’s also currently represented by “Hadestown” on Broadway, and has worked at most of New York’s major theaters.) The brick walls audiences glimpse behind the ceiling-less diorama of the main set, for instance, are not the interior of the Helen Hayes but approximate reconstructions of the walls of New York Theater Workshop.

Another choice that may escape notice until pointed out, as Ms. Schreck does in her scripted preamble: There’s no door.

“I mean, it’s a trap,” Ms. Hauck said, with a sly smile.

Mr. Butler said he thinks of the set as “a rigid box that contains and maybe oppresses [Ms. Schreck], but also gives her something to push against. It’s like Houdini would say, ‘These are the shackles; they’re real locks.’ If he wasn’t wearing the shackles, then what was he escaping from?”

For her part, Ms. Schreck has warmed considerably to her onstage surroundings. That’s partly a result of her own efforts to make herself feel at home: In the leaves of a live Cordyline plant at stage right she’s placed a sachet of White Shoulders perfume, a scent her grandmother wore.

Her grandmother’s experience of spousal abuse figures heavily in “What the Constitution Means to Me.” The show, Ms. Schreck said, has helped her “work through things just by the act of doing it every night.”

Oddly enough, she also feels “more connected to the men than I did when I first stepped onto the set.” Citing Judith Herman’s book “Trauma and Recovery,” Ms. Schreck has come to see analogies between the post-traumatic stress inflicted by combat and by sexual assault, both “born out of a violent, patriarchal culture.”

In other words, she now thinks of the faces on the wall much as she does of the white men who wrote the Constitution, with all its promises and its compromises, and who have run the American government for most of its history. She sees them “sometimes as oppressors, sometimes as allies.”

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