When you enter the Fountain Theatre to see Building the Wall, the set that greets you is simple. A classic interrogation room of sorts—a table with a pitcher of water and two glasses on it, two chairs, and a mirror. A mirror that hangs in such a way so if you are seated in the center of the theater, as I was, you will be forced to look at yourself with nowhere to hide throughout the duration of the tense 90 minute performance.
It’s uncomfortable, but so is everything about this play, which was very recently written by Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan as a direct response to the Trump administration. No, Donald Trump is not a character in this piece, although he may as well be, as its events concern one horrific hypothetical outcome of changed immigration policies. The Los Angeles production, directed by Michael Michetti, is the first of several across the country as part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, with the goal of calling those who see it to action. The producers even go as far as to include a pre-addressed, stamped postcard to Trump himself in each playbill, urging audiences to speak out and resist.
The actual story presented is simple. Sometime in the very near future, Gloria (Judith Moreland), a writer, has been granted an exclusive opportunity to interview Rick (Bo Foxworth), a former supervisor of a private prison who is now in jail himself for his role in unspeakable atrocities that occurred as the result of new immigration policies enacted by the Trump administration. Information about both Rick’s crimes and what has become of the United States outside of this prison is rolled out slowly and deliberately.
Everything about this play is difficult. It is difficult to watch, difficult to write about, and I cannot imagine how difficult and emotionally trying it is to perform night after night. Moreland and Foxworth are both doing fine work, their dynamic a tentative dance tinged with fear and horror. The intention of Building the Wall is to scare its audience, to present a worst case scenario that is just conceivable enough to startle those who see it, and to provide a cautionary tale of what could happen if people do not resist. To me, this is the point of the onstage mirror—you are literally forced to look at yourself as an active participant in both this story and the current events that inspired it, no longer allowed to be passive.
As a rallying cry to action, Building the Wall succeeds. Yes, it relies on shock value, but sometimes people need to be shocked awake. As a piece of writing, however, it leaves a bit to be desired. It only took about 20 minutes for me to figure out where the story was headed, and that was indeed where it went, without twisting expectations or surprising. The script relies on unnecessary lines of ominous foreshadowing—”that would come later,” Gloria often teases when asking Rick about the months of events leading up to the deadly climax. It’s a script that insists on taking the audience by the hand, designed to elicit one very specific reaction. The characters, despite marvelous actors who do their very best, also fail to subvert expectations. Gloria does everything you would expect of a character like her—she starts out apprehensive, offers a few personal details to both flesh out her own backstory and gain Rick’s trust, and practically abandons professionalism in favor of outrage and emotion by the end. Rick, on the other hand, is an intentionally unsettling character—is he simply a monster, or an ordinary person like you and I who was forced into an extraordinary situation? Which is more horrifying?
As a play, Building the Wall is unremarkable, but as a political statement, it is quite effective. It is certainly not forgettable, and I anticipate I will remember Rick’s shocking, heartbreaking final line for some time. At a time when we all need to sit up and pay attention to what is happening in our nation, this is a good if disturbing reminder that the first place we must look for change is in the mirror.
Building the Wall runs at the Fountain Theatre through May 21st. Performances are Mondays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased at www.FountainTheatre.com. For information about current and upcoming productions in New York, Denver, and Tucson, click here. To donate to the ACLU and support the continued efforts to protect immigrants as well as civil liberties for all, click here.