Marina Gomberg: How Broadway’s Heidi Schreck finds hope in exploring our flawed Constitution and her dark moments

(Joan Marcus/Amazon via AP) Heidi Schreck in a scene from "What the Conststution Means to Me," which draws on Schreck’s experiences as a high-school debate champion and the lives of her female relatives to explore America’s principles and the struggle women and minorities have faced to be heard and protected by its founding document. In the work, Schreck calls the Constitution “a living, warm-blooded, steamy document,” but one in which women’s bodies were left out “from the beginning.”

It was the moment she sexualized the U.S. Constitution that I knew I liked Heidi Schreck, writer and star of the Broadway play and now Amazon Prime show, “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

She plays her 15-year-old self who travels the country earning money for college by winning debate tournaments about the Constitution, which she gutturally refers to as a “living, warm-blooded, steamy document.”

My respect for that depth of weird knows no bounds.

She says, in the play, that the competitions required the debaters to explain how the Constitution had affected them personally. And other than exposing some light carnal lust, that part was always challenging for her (to be fair, who understands much of anything at age 15, much less the implications of really old legal documents?).

But she’s in her late 40s now and has reimagined how she’d answer today — it ended up being a mix of reverence for this magical collection of ideals and an acknowledgement of just how significantly it’s failed the women in her family for generations (among others).

Schreck’s play is a history lesson wrapped in comedy, marinated in grief and trauma. It’s surprising, moving and provocative. Salty and umami.

But what struck me even more than her theatrical exploration into whether or not our heralded Constitution is working (by the way, that’s questionable) was the path she took to get there.

She cracked herself open, exposing even the gritty bits (including her abortion, sexual assault and her family’s history of domestic violence), to shape this story about marginalized bodies and their relationships with the laws purported to protect them.

To say I identified with her way of sharing would be to give myself too much credit, but I can say that I was inspired to ridiculous fangirl levels and began internet stalking immediately.

I. Had. To. Know. More.

Perseverance paid off and this week I got the chance to ask her some of my most burning questions. You’ll be able to glean the goodness from this interview without having seen the play (but you’ll want to because it’s good).

The first thing I asked her, especially after reading a Vogue article that referred to her as an “oratorical prodigy,” was why she didn’t want to become a lawyer or a politician? Why did she choose art, theater specifically, as her way of making change?

She had contemplated those career paths, but realized her mind was a bit chaotic. She weighed being a scattered lawyer or a possibly successful artist, knowing they both lean heavily on storytelling, and chose the latter.

Her stage isn’t a courtroom, it’s Broadway (and now the internet), and her jurors are us, her exponentially growing audience. For what it’s worth, I rule in her favor.

The second thing I was curious about was that she used her own story rather than fiction, case law or something else (so much other evidence exists) to illustrate how our country’s founding documents were made and ratified to serve those already in power.

I had caught her interview on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in which she described her own surprise at how intimate and personal the play turned out to be. I wanted to understand why she ultimately chose to be so vulnerable.

She described a less-than-linear path to this place of courageous exposure. As a writer who often shocks myself with my own forthrightness (writing about sexual assault, suicidality, not being as “woke” as I had hoped, etc.), I know those terrifying moments when sharing my own imperfect story seemed oddly the most effective way to go.

Schreck said she typically starts her artistic process asking a question she hopes to answer with her work. And as she thought about it, she found herself winding through her own lineage of trauma and toward the laws that allowed it.

She takes the original competition prompt seriously. She answers how the Constitution has affected her with great vulnerability and openness. Despite the considerable discomfort, she is a beacon of hope — something that makes my ears perk like I’ve just heard kibble drop into a bowl.

As someone for whom optimism is a practiced art, not an inherent characteristic, I had to find out how she maintains hope while confronting such despair.

And this was when I realized Heidi Schreck and I are maybe soul sisters. She doesn’t live trying to ignore or even minimize the bad; she focuses daily on finding the good. That’s some really sweet Mr. Rogers stuff right there.

To her, writing and performing a play that wrestles with human suffering has actually been a way of healing. She described how night after night, people would find her backstage to tell her their own experiences of loss, and through their resilience and openness, she has found incredible hope.

“It allowed me to move through a lot of grief I had been holding onto,” she said. “And because I was able to move through that, I was able to feel hope about my sense of agency in the world.”

That empowerment, she said, makes it possible for her to see how access and opportunity might be granted to others, too, who for so long have not been acknowledged or cared for by the original Constitution and our interpretations of it since then.

It probably helped, too, that she shared the stage with Mike Iverson, whose character morphs so meaningfully throughout the play from the stern debate judge to gentle observer, to her ally and then finally to himself.

“I didn’t want to be out there by myself,” she said (I don’t blame her). “I wanted a witness, someone I trusted. I wanted a partner. We did that show so many times, and there was never a second when I looked over and he wasn’t completely present and with me. His performance is extraordinary, although not everyone writes about it because it’s sort of a spiritual thing he’s doing up there.”

The symbolism of his presence, even though much of his role was to solely bear witness to her story from his chair on the perimeter of the stage, illuminated the power of the people who lift us up — even if sometimes they’re not moving a muscle. He was there for every word, and her trust in him was beautiful.

It was about this part in our interview that I heard her 6-month-old twins in the background and our conversation shifted to parenthood.

“The love I have for them is so profound and different from any love I’ve had before,” Schreck said. “It’s made me think about the ways in my life I’ve been really hard on myself. I would never think about them the way I have thought about me. In some ways, being their mom has changed my own relationship to myself.”

It made me think that her grappling with and sharing her darker stories, compounded by motherhood, is actually a sort of cosmic master class in understanding and self forgiveness.

“We’re all imperfect,” she said. “So to really acknowledge that and look at our own failings, our own darkness and our own potential to do harm is really important — it can actually be a hopeful act. If we can embrace our imperfections, it becomes easier to do good things.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Marina Gomberg.

Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at mgomberg@sltrib.com.