“We are going to have borders nice and strong. We are going to build a wall.” A direct quote from— at the time— president-elect Donald J. Trump. The full horror of what was to come wasn’t even an inkling in the eyes of the masses. In a stunning new evocative, jarring, emotionally blindsiding, and harrowing work making its debut as a part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere series, Robert Schenkkan’s Building The Wall is sparking a visceral powder keg of conversation in the nation’s capital. Produced by Forum Theatre and Directed by Forum Theatre’s Artistic Director Michael Dove, this unsettling drama draws the blinding light of exposure to how very near American civilization is to heinous crimes born of unfortunate circumstance. A frightening wakeup call with its powerful message, Schenkkan’s work is a brutal examination of the possibilities of life if President Trump’s immigration policies come into full effect.
It is difficult to say whether the writing itself is so striking and effectively done that it causes shivers to shoot up the spine or the fact that Schenkkan highlights a potential reality— not so far in the near future— that is not only possible, but seemingly likely. Americans like to think they are untouchable when it comes to unsavory practices; apple pie and patriotism all the way, it’s the American way. But the ruthless possibilities laid bare in this dramatization of the nation’s future is sobering and not so far-fetched as one would hope. Desperate and difficult times leading to ill-trained officials making uninformed decisions and following orders; Schenkkan has flawlessly captured the full horror of World War II’s holocaust and woven it into the American tapestry, replacing Hitler with Trump and the Jewish population with illegal immigrants. The similarities are haunting to say the least and Schenkkan’s style of writing, exacting purchase upon dialogue exchange, and overall fluidity of plot development makes them nauseatingly believable.
To the piece is politically charged would be putting it mildly. The topics are difficult to expose and even harder to swallow as they are laid down in the two-person drama. An exchange between a prisoner and a member of the outside world. Schenkkan starts on the surface of both characters and wheedles his way through them layer by layer until unadulterated emotions, truths, and regrets are fully unveiled. Under Michael Dove’s sharp directorial eye, the play builds a blood-stirring tension right from the opening moment and keeps audiences’ perched desperately at the edge of their seat, reeling as detail after detail is brought to the forefront of the dramatic action.
Dove’s intentional minimalism keeps the focus where it should be at all times, on the words coming out of Gloria (Tracey Conyer Lee) and Rick’s (Eric Messner) mouths. Though Set Designer Patrick Lord crafts an authentic prison cell and Lighting Designer Sarah Tundermann keeps the illumination levels to a minimum, these are but minutia in the background of the heady political war erupting in the play space around them. Sound Designer Thomas Sowers, who crafts a total of two audible soundscapes for the production, deserves a nod. The absence of sound, other than dialogue being exchanged, is haunting, making its intentional inclusion— both with the riotous echo of chaos from inside the prison an the eerie unearthly hum of revelation at the play’s conclusion— a stunningly impressive choice.
Tracey Conyer Lee and Eric Messner are sensational in the roles, each bound thoroughly to the emotional root of their character. Unwavering and unyielding in their portrayals the ever growing dynamic exchange between the pair accelerates the natural born tension which Schenkkan has molded carefully into the plot. They are intensely engaged in what they are saying, what they are hearing and every word falls fresh from their lips as if they are speaking it for the first time. Mesmerizing feels like the wrong word to use for such heinous topics as what the two characters discuss, but there is a hypnotic quality that the pair possesses as they traverse the emotional excavation of Rick and Gloria’s story and how it relates to the presidential decree regarding immigration. The play’s final lines, delivered by Messner, delivering an emotional blow to the gut that knocks the wind out of you; the revelation that Schenkkan exposes in these ultimate words is mind-blowing.
True to Forum Theatre’s mission, this highly controversial piece of theatre will indeed spark a conversation for miles and days. Partnering with Arena Stage to allow the piece maximum exposure to the people of Washington DC was an exceptionally smart move. A more relevant piece of theatre will be hard to find, especially in the nation’s capital, at this present time. One should not waste the opportunity to see this life-changing work while it is running in the district.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission
Building The Wall plays through May 7, 2017 in the Kogod Cradle of Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theatre— 1101 6th Street SW in Washington, DC. Building The Wall will play starting May 18th through May 27th, 2017 at Forum Theatre— 8641 Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 588-8279 or purchase them online.