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The famous Milgram tests of the 1960s had one set of subjects fitted with electrodes, and the other with a button to administer voltage when questions were answered incorrectly. In one trial, 65 percent of those in the second category administered as much as 450 volts, even though the dial at their fingertips was labeled “danger.” Liberals might call the trigger-happy offenders Trump supporters. One such man is the subject of the disquieting new play Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Kentucky Cycle, Tony winner for All the Way and co-screenwriter on last year’s Hacksaw Ridge. In his mesmerizing two-hander, the playwright illustrates the chilling speed at which fascistic tendencies can overtake ordinary Americans.
In an interview with a writer (Judith Moreland), prison administrator-turned-inmate Rick (Bo Foxworth) recalls events spanning from President Trump’s victory through 2019, when the play is set. Following a terrorist strike in Times Square, martial law was declared and increased ICE and Homeland Security arrests led to rapid expansions in the private prison system. Rick was a guard at one such prison that gradually devolved into a death camp.
The facility was meant to hold detainees for deportation. But when their home countries rejected them, the prison was stuck with an ever-expanding population. Unchecked health issues resulted in mass casualties, while everyday guys like Rick continued to follow orders that led to liquidation of the prison population.
Foxworth had a supporting part in the South Coast Rep’s 2016 production of All the Way, Schenkkan’s Lyndon Baines Johnson bio-drama that won him a best play Tony as well as best actor honors for Bryan Cranston two years earlier (it was subsequently adapted as an HBO movie). Obviously, Foxworth impressed the playwright enough to earn him the role of Rick, a man who was drawn to Trump rallies where he found people like himself — mainly Christian and white. “Trump was funny!” he says. “He told a lot of lies, but he also told some hard truths,” about protecting the border. As the situation at the prison where Rick worked spiraled into chaos, he either didn’t see or ignored the rising tide of horror around him.
A Trump supporter might watch Building the Wall and see a case of liberal hysteria from a coastal snowflake, forecasting doom and gloom just because his candidate didn’t win. In fact, Schenkkan may have been in a fit of hysteria when he wrote the play over seven feverish days last October. But although it simmers with of-the-moment urgency, it logically illustrates, step by step, how fascism can gradually take root among people who abhor it.
Scenic designer Se Oh provides a bright white room with a table and three chairs beneath a two-way mirror — a clever addition whose presence alone introduces tension. Director Michael Michetti’s naturalistic handling of his cast puts the focus on the text, which makes Building the Wall a talk-piece that sometimes drags, but mostly maintains a firm grip on the audience as the narrative escalates to inconceivable madness made disturbingly conceivable.
While the play provides a dark and shocking twist at the end, audiences can take comfort in the fact that Rick wound up in prison and presumably our battered democracy remains intact. Schenkkan hopes the work will serve as a cautionary tale, but more importantly, a call to action.
Developed by the Lark Theater in New York, where post-election readings were first staged, the play was circulated among the National New Play Network, an alliance of non-profit theaters. It is scheduled next for Denver’s Curious Theater, the Forum Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Tucson’s Borderlands Theater. In the meantime, Schenkkan is handling requests for productions in Canada, the U.K. and other countries.
Building the Wall arrives on the heels of Jon Robin Baitz’s Trump-based satire, Vicuña, which had its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last season during the run-up to the election, as well as January’s Ghostlight Project, a peaceful protest at 300 theaters in 42 states. In London, Theatre503 has commissioned a series of 12 short plays written in response to Trump’s election, and no doubt more entries sparked by the divisive new White House administration are to come. Or not, if proposed NEA cuts are enacted.
Venue: Fountain Theatre, Hollywood
Cast: Bo Foxworth, Judith Moreland
Director: Michael Michetti
Playwright: Robert Schenkkan
Set designer: Se Oh
Costume designer: Naila Aladdin Sanders
Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper
Sound designer: John Nobori
Technical director: Scott Tuomey
Presented by The Fountain Theatre, National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, Simon Levy, Stephen Sachs, Deborah Lawlor
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