UT Department of Theatre & Dance's Building the Wall
UT Department of Theatre & Dance rushes to get Robert Schenkkan's timely political drama onstage
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Sept. 8, 2017
It's a brave playwright who writes about current events in 2017. The newsreel is running so fast, and our understanding shifts so much from week to week, that it's hard to write anything – even a review – that won't seem dated by next week. Hey, remember the solar eclipse? Neither do I.
In that context, playwright Robert Schenkkan has rushed to stage a script that the UT Department of Theatre & Dance promotes as having been written in "'a white heat' fury just before the November 2016 election." Based on some references, Schenkkan appears to have touched up the script since, but even so, it's dizzying to watch the play and balance its already dated interpretation of U.S. politics against today's interpretations, in turn against projections for what headlines will emerge next week.
In other plays, Schenkkan has established himself as a skilled writer on American history and politics. His nuanced grasp of how a country this massive and diverse swings from one extreme to another is clear. In Building the Wall, he shrinks his sometimes massive visions into a two-character, one-room play, featuring Gloria, a college professor (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), interviewing Rick, a prisoner in a Texas penitentiary (David Sitler), and he causes momentous conflicts and confusions to play out between these two people.
Gloria has come, she says, because she wants to know how Rick could have done what he did. He began as a rank-and-file Trump supporter – someone who wasn't really into politics until he went to a rally and it struck a chord. As with most Trump supporters, he doesn't consider himself racist or hateful. Yet the story he tells slowly reveals him as a man who tried to do a good job at the work he was assigned, but who never found the courage to turn from what he eventually recognized as evil. The result was the hand he played in committing crimes against humanity on a mass scale.
Gloria's prison interview frames Rick's story. That inner story will be frighteningly plausible to some. But consider the story from the perspective of someone like Rick, someone whose understanding of the world is personal and not global. Does humanizing the perpetrators of genocide change his opinion in any way? Or does it work like comparing Trump to Hitler: a statement so drastic that it remains categorically impossible to millions of minds in this country and therefore achieves nothing? Regardless, Trump supporters are likely not seeing Building the Wall in big numbers, which puts the purpose of the narrative in the same category as the Women's March, which changed nobody's mind, but it revitalized opposition to the current administration.
The play's outer story is problematic. The prison interview setting is popular with playwrights in a hurry: Somebody asks questions and the other person can't leave. It works if it's understood that the central conflict is whether or not the prisoner decides to talk. In this sense, Gloria – played skillfully by Dorn – is a rotten interviewer. She never hides her disgust with Rick's actions. Rick says at the beginning that he only agreed to talk to her because she'll tell his story in his own words. That's doubtful early on, but he still talks. There's no struggle to reveal his secrets.
Brant Pope's direction in Bruno-Pierre Houle's set seems implausible. Could a man who's been living in solitary really enjoy free rein of such a large room, bolted-down benches notwithstanding? Is this how much ease and space these characters would have when moving around each other?
In the end, it seems like Building the Wall shouldn't be a play. It's not about Gloria and Rick; it's Rick's story that holds the meaning. A short story or novella might serve as a better vehicle for Schenkkan's grand and frightening vision.
Building the WallOscar Brockett Theatre, 300 W. 23rd
Through Sept. 10
Running time: 1 hr., 15 min.