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Robert Schenkkan took about as much time to write Building the Wall, his nightmarish speculative future-history of a truncated Trump administration, as Team Trump spent on the first draft of the President’s anti-Muslim travel ban. Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner not given to haste, told The New York Times he wrote the play in a “white-hot fury” in the seven days leading up to the 2016 election. Forum, arguably the DMV’s most nimble and fearless theater troupe, is one of at least a half-dozen around the country that quickly reshuffled their already-programmed seasons to get Building the Wall in front of audiences sooner than later. In a normal new-play development cycle, full productions might not happen until 2019—the year Building the Wall happens to be set. But say it with me now: This Is Not Normal.
I’d long assumed another 9/11-scale terror attack would have to happen before enough Americans would consent to put a deranged reactionary like Trump in the White House. Schenkkan imagines that such an attack has happened: A bomb went off in Manhattan, Trump declared martial law, and millions have been interned.
The play takes the form of an interview some time later between Gloria (Tracy Conyer Lee), an academic, and Rick (Eric Messner), a former manager in a private-prison firm contracted by the government to house detainees awaiting deportation. Rick, as it gradually comes to light, is one of the unlucky few convicted of horrific acts for which many more—and more powerful—people share culpability.
But that doesn’t mean Rick isn’t guilty as sin himself, and his protests have a hollow, reflexive quality. You can tell that they don’t hold up even to his own examination. Messner, an actor too long absent from D.C. stages, does a superb job of peeling away the man’s layers in his own good time. Lee, a New York actor, believably suggests a reporter struggling to preserve her observational remove in the face of prosaic evil.
It takes nothing away from Messner or Lee or director Michael Dove’s achievement to point out I just saw Chris Genebach, Erica Chamblee, and director Logan Vaughn do precisely the same thing in A Human Being Died That Night.
Building a Wall’s similarity to A Human Being, which ended its run at Mosaic Theatre April 30, is more than casual. Both are one acts comprised of real-time conversation between a convict who’s had time to reflect on his atrocities and a female interlocutor who’s trying to keep her emotional distance. Human Being was adapted from a psychologist’s nonfiction book about her interviews with Eugene de Kock, the South African police colonel who was sentenced to 212 years in prison after he confessed to abducting, torturing, and murdering anti-Apartheid activists in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Sadly, Schenkkan’s speculative scenario requires no more buoyant a suspension of disbelief than Mosaic’s fact-based one. Margaret Atwood has said of her landmark dystopian future-history The Handmaid’s Tale that she put nothing in her work of fiction that had not already happened, somewhere. Schenkkan’s cautionary tale is less original but no less rigorous. He’s taking Trump literally and seriously.
At Forum Theatre May 18-27. 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $33-$38. (301) 588-8279. Forum-theatre.org.