Building the Wall By Robert Schenkkan
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre
Directed by Sean Devine
It was historian Hannah Arendt who famously advanced the concept of the banality of evil.
This viewpoint threaded its way through her book, Eichmann In Jerusalem, a riveting account of the trial of an infamous Nazi war criminal.
But you’ll also understand what she was getting at if you venture out to the Gladstone this weekend to see American dramatist Robert Schenkkan’s quietly lacerating new play, Building The Wall, and take in Brad Long’s unsettling portrayal of a redneck prison officer who has been complicit in unspeakable crimes against humanity.
Essentially, this is a smoothly crafted piece of polemic by a dramatist best known for supplying right-wing filmmaker Mel Gibson with the screenplay for Hacksaw Ridge. Schenkkan himself admits it was written quickly in the heat of the moment following Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president a year ago. But there is little in this dystopian vision of an America under Trump to suggest it is driven by hysteria. It is too measured, too thoughtful, to be dispensed with that easily. Instead, under the equally tactful direction of Sean Devine, it demonstrates its power as a slowly unfolding horror story.
It’s a story that gradually emerges from the lips of Rick, a former supervisor in a private, for-profit prison — yes, they condone such things in today’s America — who is now under arrest himself and awaiting sentencing for crimes committed on his watch. The year is 2019, two years into the Trump presidency, and the setting is a drab prison meeting room in the border town of El Paso. Designer David Magladry has created an appropriately scummy venue for the play’s dramatic confrontation between Brad Long’s Rick, who initially manages a swaggering disdain as he arrives in his orange-hued prison garb, and Gloria, the black academic who is trying to understand the forces that led to his actions and his ultimate conviction.
But what actions exactly? We’re left in the dark for a while — Schenkkan is adroit enough to appreciate the suspense that can be created simply by allowing an unanswered question to linger. Meanwhile. he is building another kind of tension in the course of this 70-minute drama, the psychological tension that can be triggered by a confrontation between two wildly disparate individuals.
Subtext asserts itself early on when Rick discovers that Gloria, portrayed with great subtlety by Cassandre Mentor, is black. Rick has to make a mental adjustment here and it shows up in body language and the way he addresses her and in his flickering moments of uncertainty. And if these two don’t exactly bond, they do move into a sort of relationship that isn’t really comfortable for either.
It doesn’t take long before the irony emerges. You have Gloria, who is black but also educated and increasingly secure in her middle-class comfort zone. And you have Rick, the quintessential Trump supporter — a disgruntled white guy who feels marginalized and disenfranchised by a system that, among other things, allows aliens, both legal and illegal, to come into the country and take away jobs.
And again, you have Gloria’s own insecurities surfacing as a result of what Rick represents about the age of Trump. And then again there’s Rick who, two years into a Trump presidency, has entered the promised land but not the promised land of his dreams. “Who speaks up for us anymore?” he complains. So here’s the thing — does he really consider the persistent hollow in his own world sufficient to excuse his conduct as a prison officer?
Gloria pleads with Rick to help her to “understand.” The script, skilful in exposition, gradually allows us to get the story of what happened — a terrorist attack in New York’s Times Square, the declaration of martial law, mass arrests of immigrants, incarcerations without trial, an outbreak of cholera in the prison system — and finally a deadly solution.
To hear Brad Long’s Rick finally give us the details, his flickering shame finally trumped by a sullen last-ditch defiance, is to evoke memories of 70 years ago. He sees himself as “a regular guy” caught up in “extraordinary circumstances.”
Donald Trump, in his railings against his “elitist” enemies, talks of the need to drain the swamp. And this play suggests that he has plenty of loyal allies who find reason to share his fantasy world. In brief, Ottawa’s Horseshoe and Hand Grenades Theatre has delivered a must-see production. At the Gladstone Theatre til December 3.
Also available on the Toronto site:
Director: Sean Devine
Set and lighting: David Magladry
Sound: Kyle Ahluwalia