Playwright Robert Schenkkan has formulated his personal crusade into the moving tale of what might be in the near future. Schenkkan’s message is clear as the story unfolds: evil thrives because those who see it do nothing to stop it and “go with the flow.” This message, so aptly explored by Hannah Arendt and Gitta Sereny, questions how the unthinkable can happen and concludes that inaction is as lethal as action. Clearly, author Schenkkan has taken horrendous events like the Holocaust and asked how humanity could permit this escalation of evil. He also questions whether some contemporary occurrences in the U.S. under the Trump administration might not resurrect the horrors of the past.
It is 2019, and Rick (Bo Foxworth) has been convicted of murder and awaits his execution in prison. As he sits in solitary confinement, he is visited by Gloria (Judith Moreland), an African-American college professor who has asked to interview him in order to gain an understanding of why he did what he did. BUILDING THE WALL slowly takes the audience through Rick’s earlier life as an Army brat through his evolution into a responsible and patriotic citizen who served in the military during the Gulf War. Rick has risen from hard beginnings to become a devoted family man who worries about his wife and his fragile baby daughter.
Rick is also the warden of a detention center for immigrants awaiting deportation. As the prison interview progresses, horror upon horror emerges. All the while Rick observes what is happening but makes only feeble efforts to stem the tide. His detention center is overcrowded as more and more immigrants are sent there. To add to the obvious problems, efforts to deport the detainees are dwindling as fewer and fewer countries are willing to take them. Eventually, Rick spreads out into a tent city – and then moves into a repurposed stadium. All the while, basic necessities of life are becoming fewer and fewer, and sanitation issues are growing day to day. Finally, a break-out of cholera explodes into his reality – and still Rick does nothing except beg his “higher-ups” for aid while they tell him to “make do.” Finally, all humanity is lost, and still Rick remains stuck in his helpless, “do-nothing” stance. He never stops the inevitable and inexorable build-up of evil “on his watch.”
Playwright Schenkkan has penned a gripping polemic which hammers home what might happen in a dystopian future run by a government controlled by the uncaring and maintained by political minions who follow orders and turn a blind eye to abuses. Throughout the play, the audience is clear about one thing – something bad is going to happen – and Rick knows it. Given the current political football associated with immigration, this is obviously a timely and relevant topic. The escalation of abuses is gradual and artfully described in this production. At times, however, the message overwhelms the play, resulting in characterizations suffering in service to the message. Perhaps, rather than a hammer, author Schenkkan might have used a somewhat more subtle call to action. In the long run, BUILDING A WALL feels like a well-written propaganda piece. Regardless of the strength of the writing and acting, the audience may well be swallowing a bitter pill indeed.
Award-winning Director Michael Michetti obviously has his heart in the right place as he helms this production. Bo Foxworth does an excellent job of getting into the mind and heart of a man many would consider a mass murderer. He is able to walk the fine line between compassion and guilt – especially when it seems that Rick may be less innocent than he claims. Judith Moreland does a competent job of presenting Gloria; however, this is a role which is more a foil to Rick’s crimes against humanity than a multilayered, complex character in her own right. Se Oh’s set design is simple, obviously and effectively adhering to the concept of “less is more.” Elizabeth Harper’s lighting and Naila Aladdin Sanders’ costumes are appropriate and well done. Especially the immediate brilliant light at the beginning of the play and the instant blackness at the end are highly effective.
BUILDING THE WALL runs through May 21, 2017, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90029. Tickets range from $15 to $35, with “Pay-What-You-Can” every Monday evening. For information and reservations, call 323-663-1525 or go online.