by Carole Di Tosti
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” begins the first line of Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” Robert Schenkkan (Pultizer/Tony Award winner) in his starkly chilling, mind-crashing play, Building The Wall, turns Frost’s concept about walls inside out. He examines the idea of President Trump’s border wall between the United States and Mexico by putting it through a metaphoric, futuristic crucible of events that lead toward a blinding conclusion. By the end of ninety minutes, our souls are wringing wet, our feelings numbed by the unimaginable which echoes the haunting realities that happened in the Vel’d’Hiv Roundup and internment camps of Paris, 1942, during the Armenian Genocide in 1916, during the Holocaust of the second World War and every genocide that followed and is still happening today.
“Good fences make good neighbors” insists the conservative neighbor in Frost’s poem as he makes sure the stones that border their properties are piled high, separating them. However, in Schenkkan’s dystopian Building The Wall, directed with relentless precision, by Ari Edelson, the concept of the wall’s “goodness” is ultimately questioned, as it is in Frost’s poem. Indeed, as Schenkkan unravels the storyline, we discover that it is the “concept” of what a wall means that closes off progress, opportunity, humanity, kindness, empathy and love. As he unspools the metaphor, the playwright indicates how walls surreptitiously isolate individuals within their own souls, and if circumstances overwhelm, they may lay the groundwork for situations where genocide is not only “acceptable,” it is “necessary.”
Schenkkan adds thematic threads to the wall metaphor and creates an obliging character study of Rick an everyman/everywoman who is “walled” in by circumstances which lead him to the inevitable conclusion that he must engage in mass murder, following orders in an impossible situation. If one must decide between oneself and one’s family or “them,” as Rick (a formidable performance by James Badge Dale) feels he must, you eliminate “them,” even if “them” numbers into hundreds and thousands. Thus, under the “right” conditions there is no moral wall, no intellectual wall, no spiritual wall, no ethical wall powerful enough to stop genocide, especially if one has accepted the overriding idea of hierarchical differences among races and ethnic groups, firmly held together with an authoritarian, anti-human rule of law.
These incredibly complex themes are established concept by concept as we follow Rick’s account of his life and how it led him to his current circumstances living in solitary confinement in a Texas prison, 2019, awaiting sentencing after his trial for mass murder. To accurately explain his side of the story, Rick has taken the bait to be a research subject. Rick has agreed to meet in a sterile interrogation room (the set and sound design choices are superbly chilling) with Gloria (Tamara Tunie in an intriguing portrayal at times emotional, at times stoic), a history professor. She will question him about the time he was the supervisor of a private prison.
Rick and Gloria are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Gloria discovers. Rick agrees with President Trump, who declared martial law after a terrorist explosion occurred. He agrees with the President’s authoritarianism and magnification of the police state. To an extent Rick mirrors this when he is in charge of a detention facility that houses illegal aliens, immigrants, criminals and others who await deportation.
During her questioning Gloria looks for the glitches, probes his story, then nails him to the truth. Rick confesses with heart-rending momentum. It is a truth which Schenkkan cauterizes us with, as James Badge Dales’ Rick acutely describes the horrific atrocities with compelling, tragic power. Gloria has won the day. He admits he is accountable. At one point she does cry and perhaps there is a release. But there is no forgiveness. He doesn’t ask for it.
We identify with her resolve and his weakness, two sides of the same coin. We all are human. And this is what human beings are capable of under fascism, under authoritarianism, under a police state, under an oppression of fear and paranoia. Unthinkable, until we remember the past.
Indeed, evil’s banality is everpresent. It is especially so when it is woven into institutions, laws and the machinery of politics. With Building The Wall, Schenkkan reminds us to open our eyes to the present in a play you cannot miss.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
The production has no intermission. It is at New World Stages (340 West Fiftieth) until 9 July, directed by Ari Edelson. www.buildingthewallplay.com