Speculative political fiction written six months ago and set a mere two years from today is a bold thing to write and produce. But there was a moral imperative to the subject of this play that propelled its author to write it and Forum Theatre to produce it.
In Building the Wall, Robert Schenkkan (All the Way) eases the audience gently into an absolute nightmare, a political worst case scenario for what our next few years could entail. It is such a simple production and script that it debatably doesn’t need a theatrical production at all. But the story deserves to be told and the Forum Theatre production is told well.
The play begins with an underwhelmingly familiar scene. Almost eerily familiar to attendees of Mosaic Theater Company’s recent A Human Being Died that Night. An investigator (in this case, an historian) attempts to coax the truth out of a deplorable criminal in an interrogation room. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse more fit for a formulaic crime drama than timely and devastating theatre.
However, Building the Wall does the old formula very well. Gloria (Tracy Conyer Lee) and Rick (Eric Messner) have a satisfying flow as power shifts between the two of them. Some of Rick’s lines that could be merely aggressive are given a refreshing humor by Messner and director Michael Dove. But what really redeems this been-there-done-that trope is the real empathy that Gloria and Rick develop.
Gloria is not there to sentence Rick. She is there to understand his side of the story, how events, so terrible that they go through most of the play unsaid, unfolded in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election.
Once Gloria and the audience are ready to listen to Rick, Schenkkan gives the audience a fair portrait of a veteran and a Trump supporter leading up to the election. Gloria and Rick go back and forth, reciting major political events from 9/11 onwards and exploring Rick’s take on them. The way he describes a Trump rally does a better job of explaining Trump the candidate’s rise to power than most think-pieces.
Building the Wall
But Building the Wall’s great project is describing in hauntingly believable and vivid detail how a typical, if fictional, American could sink to an historic level of depravity, bringing his country down into the mud with him.
Fictional modern oral history is a powerful genre, as fans of Max Brooks’s novel World War Z know. Hearing transformative world events dissected down to the day-by-day by those that lived them gives stories even as far out as Brooks’s zombie all-but-apocalypse a fascinating credibility. Same with Building the Wall, only it is tragically realistic. Schenkkan leads us by the hand from one practical, reasonable choice to another until one of the worst nightmares dreamt of on November 8, 2016, comes true. At its climax, Schenkkan and director Michael Dove have the house rippling with gasps and stifled sobs, line after line. I have rarely seen an audience so moved or been so moved myself.
Which is all the more astounding for how simple the show is. The well-worn ground of criminal interrogations that the show opens with is really the most dynamic the show ever gets. Once Gloria has gotten Rick’s trust, she mostly fades into the background with little to say but to prod Rick’s more-or-less monologue along. Lee and Messner spend much of the play sitting in their plain, metal prison chairs at a plain, metal prison table with only brief and rarely significant blocking to shake things up. Even the rest of Patrick Lord’s minimal set, fluorescent lights to suggest walls and a tremendous opaque window pane hanging above, seems just a little excessive for this barebones script.
Building the Wall is a heartbreaking play and Forum Theatre’s production is well done. It is being rolled out in premieres across the country before opening in New York on May 12 for a very limited engagement. It needs to be heard by any means necessary. Cut the set, cut the costumes, cut the blocking. There is a moral imperative to make this show an audio drama for mass distribution, and the script seems built for it. Though there would be something lost, the tears that silently roll down Lee’s face or the knowledge that some of your fellow audience members remember the Holocaust, what Schenkkan has to say must be heard. See it now and hope that the rest of the country can hear it soon.
Building the Wall. Written by Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Michael Dove. Performed by Tracey Conyer Lee and Eric Messner. Set design by Patrick Lord. Lighting design by Sarah Tundermann. Costume design by Heather Lockard. Sound design by Thomas Sowers. Stage managed by Jenny Rubin. Produced by Forum Theatre. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.