Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Tony Bozzuto as Rick and Kanomé Jones as Gloria in BUILDING THE WALL by Robert Schenkkan. Photo by Tyler Core.
By Conor McShane
There’s little doubt that we, as an art community, will be creating work analyzing and dissecting our current president and his administration for a long time to come. Indeed, much has already been done to engage, either directly or indirectly, with the world we find ourselves in and the impact it has, and will continue to have, on our lives. Playwright Robert Schenkkan does this in very explicit terms with his new play BUILDING THE WALL, receiving its Chicago premiere with Stage Left Theatre. Written, as the press release notes, “in a white-hot fury” after the election, Schenkkan envisions a scary—and scarily plausible—scenario that we’re one or two more tragedies away from. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really craft a compelling piece of theatre around it.
The play is set in the year 2019, after an attack on Times Square that led President Trump to declare martial law, rounding up and detaining thousands of immigrants, regardless of their nationality or religion. At this point, he has been impeached, “exiled to Palm Beach,” as apparently the government has righted itself after the situation escalated from internment to full-on holocaust. Interested in presenting the story from the side of one of those responsible (and, if she’s honest, a potential book deal), Gloria (Kanomé Jones), a history professor, has sat down with Rick (Tony Bozzuto), the head of security for the privatized detention center who’s in prison awaiting his fate for his role in what happened. Over the next 80 minutes or so, he shares the horrifying details of his task, and his own reluctance (though not that much reluctance, to be honest) at carrying out orders foisted upon him by his corporate overlords.
From our modern vantage point, it’s understandable to look at a seemingly unbelievable tragedy like the Holocaust of World War II and think to ourselves, “how could this possibly happen?” The level of violence, the disregard for human life, seems unimaginable to those who didn’t live through it. We are also wont to ask, how could anyone, civilian or military, go along with such a thing. Schenkkan’s play attempts to answer those questions, framing them in a scenario that could easily play out in our current climate, but ultimately his play succeeds more as a thought experiment than engrossing piece of drama. His characters are little more than stock types, or in fact even less.
Gloria, in particular, has no real character or even much narrative purpose other than furthering the dialogue. In fact, this could easily be reframed as a solo show without having to change much (this isn’t a dig at the actor, who does what she can with the role, but rather the thinness of the character). If it’s true that every character in a drama needs a strong objective, then it’s hard to figure out what Gloria really wants other than to document Rick’s story. This is disappointing on another level—the sole minority character onstage is minimized, essentially there for the conflicted white male character to bounce off of. Not that there’s really that much bouncing; in fact, there’s very little tension between the two of them, and neither character seems to change in any fundamental way by the time the lights fade to black.
Schenkkan is clearly no slouch: his play THE KENTUCKY CYCLE won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992, and his more recent play ALL THE WAY was a big hit, winning Tonys and generating a TV adaptation on HBO. His desire to engage with our uncertain times through his chosen medium is very understandable. Perhaps if he’d taken the time to digest his fears and craft a satisfying piece of theater, the play would have more impact. There’s nothing wrong with creating art that responds to current events, but in this case, that desire to create something in-the-moment without much reflection or revision ironically robs the play of any resonance beyond creating a nightmare scenario that is shocking in its implication, but doesn’t allow us any real emotional investment.
There are some production aspects that deserve recognition. Jones and Bozzuto do solid work with what they’re given, adding some emotional depth not present in the script. Joe Schermoly’s set is stark and effective, harsh white cinder block walls and a simple metal table conjuring the bleak reality. Stephen Gawrit’s sound design, ambient prison noises cutting through the scene, is also very effective, enough to make me wish it was used more frequently. All do what they can to bolster the script, but ultimately aren’t quite able to make a satisfying experience out of what they have to work with.
There will no doubt be many, many pieces of theatre in the coming years (or decades) attempting to come to some kind of understanding about how we got to this point, and while we may never fully understand it, it’s a necessary function of art to try to make sense of things. It’s hard to fault Schenkkan for engaging with his times, but his play ultimately isn’t able to inspire much discussion, or even much ire. Despite the horrors it describes, it comes up hollow.