75 minutes / Drama | Adult
Building the Wall is what’s known in the business as a hot property. This is its Canadian premiere, but it’s already been produced in both red and blue states in the United States: California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Arizona, Florida and New York.
The audience’s first impression at The Gladstone Theatre is David Magladry’s tawdry setting of a Texas prison meeting room, long in need of a fresh coat of paint. This dingy, fluorescent-lit room forms the arena for the two protagonists.
Rick (Brad Long), a white high school dropout with a military upbringing, is on death row. Poorly educated but naturally intelligent, Rick rose through the ranks of non-commissioned officers in the U.S. Army’s Military Police while stationed in Iraq. After an honourable discharge, he’s risen through the ranks of prison security and administration in the public and then the private sector.
Gloria (Cassandre Mentor) is a black minor league history professor who can’t afford to have the engine in her aging Ford Fairlane overhauled. Pregnant, she’s facing additional responsibilities. She has dreams of publishing a book to kick-start her career.
Rick’s lawyer advised him not to take the stand at his trial, where he was convicted. Gloria is gambling that she can turn Rick’s hitherto untold story into a book. But she fears that this short meeting will be fruitless, leaving her with notes that she will consign to the trash.
The two protagonists square off in the prison visitors’ room. Rick stands tall with military bearing (in spite of his orange jumpsuit), commanding the high ground. Gloria claims territory, setting out the contents of her voluminous purse to claim most of the meeting table.
Rick tries to stick to the line of his lawyer’s defence, but Gloria will have none of it. She establishes her negotiator’s line in the sand: Rick tells her the truth, or she walks. Then Rick’s side of the story will remain untold.
The lines are drawn; the engagement begins.
Gloria applies her training in history, psychology and sociology to draw Rick out, starting with his growing up as a military brat, with a church-going mother and a beer-swigging strict Air Force father. But she discovers unexpected complexity in Rick. Yes, he’s a conservative, believing in small government, low taxes, family, loyalty and patriotic duty. But when Gloria tries to label his father’s physical punishment as abuse, Rick calls it discipline. And Rick is not a hide-bound Republican. He doesn’t put party before country. Though ill-schooled, he has a finely-tuned natural BS detector for both Republican and Democratic politicians. “Politicians talk a lot. But they don’t care about us – the middle class – working people.” “All politicians lie. You judge them by what they do.”
Although he became a Trump supporter, Rick doesn’t fit Gloria’s preconceptions.
Rick too discovers a complexity to Gloria. She’s not just some bleeding-heart liberal in an ivory tower. They both have suffered losses in the Iraq war. He’s lost buddies in the war zone. She’s lost her favourite brother to an IED. “It was a closed casket funeral.”
Rick is a firm believer in structure, control and order. When Gloria asks his opinion of Abu Ghraib, he blames a failure of command, structure, discipline and control. It is an affront to his military training and values.
Set in the near future (2019), Building the Wall reminds me of what Margaret Atwood said about her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. She said that every event in the novel has an historical precedent. Similarly, every event in this script has an historical precedent – in the U.S., Britain, India, Germany, Poland, Iraq…
Playwright Robert Schenkkan builds his plot like a brick wall, carefully laying one brick at a time, based on these precedents. Some are contemporary: the hollowing out of the American middle class, the arrogance of Democrats and liberals, the way Trump played his Republican opponents like a violin. Some have older roots: the American reaction to 9/11, Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”, Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority, and Sinclair Lewis’s 1930s novel It Can’t Happen Here.
Schenkkan tosses a few plausible developments into the plot: a terrorist act, the President’s reaction, and a growing crisis with Rick situated directly in the middle. Schenkkan presents an escalating series of incidents and unintended consequences that lead to a truly chilling conclusion.
He builds the tension so inexorably that there came a point on opening night where the audience was so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop.
Cassandra Mentor and Brad Long put in such complex, nuanced and intense performances that I expect Rideau Award or Capital Critics Circle nominations for both of them.
The short run ends Sunday. See these two extraordinary performances and this hard-hitting play.
Building the Wall by Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theatre is playing at The Gladstone Theatre. Friday to Sunday December 1 to 3 at 7:30pm. Matinee Saturday December 2 at 2:30pm. Adult tickets are $39 (including HST). Senior tickets are $35. and Student/Artist/Unwaged tickets are $23.