UT Department of Theatre & Dance's Building the Wall

UT Department of Theatre & Dance rushes to get Robert Schenkkan's timely political drama onstage

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 Wall

Oscar Brockett Theatre, 300 W. 23rd
Through Sept. 10
Running time: 1 hr., 15 min.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More UT Department of Theatre & Dance
UT Department of Theatre & Dance's <i>Enron</i>
UT Department of Theatre & Dance's Enron
This production of Lucy Prebbles' play smartly recounts and reframes the corporate beast's rise and fall

T. Lynn Mikeska, March 2, 2018

Seen / Soon: Dec. 15
Seen / Soon: Dec. 15
A grand send-off to musical theatre at UT with The Drowsy Chaperone and feeding off the solstice darkness with Carla McElhaney and invoke

Dec. 15, 2017

More Arts Reviews
Filigree Theatre's <i>When We Were Young and Unafraid</i>
Filigree Theatre's When We Were Young and Unafraid
Sarah Treem's drama revisits a time not that long ago when American women were controlled

Laura Jones, Feb. 15, 2019

"Randall Reid: Past and Present" at Davis Gallery
The man who reassembles the past's artifacts has his own past's artifacts assembled for all to see

Wayne Alan Brenner, Feb. 15, 2019

More by Elizabeth Cobbe
Southwest Theatre Productions' <i>Sweat</i>
Southwest Theatre Productions' Sweat
This production brings home the plight of the American blue-collar worker with sympathy

Jan. 25, 2019

Street Corner Arts' <i>We Are Proud to Present ...</i>
Street Corner Arts' We Are Proud to Present ...
This production is more than exceptional theatre; it asks thought-provoking questions about authority, perspective, and intention

Dec. 7, 2018


UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Robert Schenkkan, Brant Pope, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, David Sitler, Bruno-Pierre Houle

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle