Playwright Robert Schenkkan has been having a great couple of years. America, on the other hand, has not. Those two circumstances converge in Schenkkan’s taught, timely, must-see new play, “Building the Wall,” an excoriating critique of the virulent rhetoric — and actions — in contemporary American politics. The show’s regional premiere is playing through Sept. 10 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre on the campus of the University of Texas, presented by the Department of Theatre and Dance.
Schenkkan is perhaps best-known most recently for his two plays about President Lyndon B. Johnson — “All The Way,” which won the Tony Award for best play and was adapted into a film starring Bryan Cranston for HBO, and its follow-up “The Great Society,” produced earlier this year at Zach Theatre — and for co-writing the film “Hacksaw Ridge.” In “Building the Wall,” Schenkkan turns his nuanced view of American society and larger-than-life, boisterous presidents to our contemporary political reality.
A tight, one-scene play with only two characters, “Building the Wall” meshes a subtle character study with an exploration of political rhetoric taken to its extreme. As Schenkkan himself describes the play, “I have imagined a time not so far from now, in which the current president’s incendiary rhetoric on immigration and border security has found its full, even logical, expression.” That expression, which is slowly revealed over the course of the play, is truly chilling in its plausibility and the almost casual nature with which it comes to be.
This, though, is entirely Schenkkan’s point: The greatest horrors perpetrated by mankind were aided, abetted and carried out by average, ordinary citizens who viewed themselves as patriots. Such is the case with Rick, an imprisoned white man whose life is examined in “Building the Wall” by Gloria, a black professor of history. Gloria is visiting Rick in prison in order to understand why he committed the heinous deeds that landed him there, and her systematic interrogation of his life story provides the show with its narrative drive.
There are no bells nor whistles to “Building the Wall,” and director Brant Pope rightly puts full faith in his actors to give life to this dramatic, disturbing text, complemented by a realistic yet slightly representational set designed by Bruno-Pierre Houle and stark, subtly textured lighting designed by Aaron Curry. Franchelle Stewart Dorn, as Gloria, and David Sitler, as Rick, bring their years of acting experience to this troubling text, and their adversarial chemistry prevents the play from ever becoming stagnant or didactic. Sitler, particularly, does a remarkable job of portraying Rick with a level of sympathy that makes the revelation of his actions all the more horrific.
If “Building the Wall” were simply an anti-Trump agitprop screed, it would likely not resonate as a text. Instead, in this play Schenkkan wisely looks beyond Donald Trump’s authoritarian posturing toward the ordinary men and women willing to succumb to strongman leadership because of their own fears and resentments. What we should really fear, the playwright warns, is not Trump, but the average Americans willing to follow him.
“BUILDING THE WALL”
When: Various dates and times through Sept. 10
Where: Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 300 E. 23rd St.