Monday, September 24, 2018

'Building the Wall': Fonseca Theatre debut production outlines the moral end game of current immigration policy

To paraphrase an old anti-war question: What if they built a wall and nobody came?
Confrontation across the table: Clay Mabbitt and Milicent Wright play antagonists in "Building the Wall."

That's the question that hangs in the air at the conclusion of  "Building the Wall," a one-act play by Robert Schenkkan now being presented as the Fonseca Theatre Company's

inaugural show. The production, seen Saturday night, continues weekends through Oct. 7 at the new company's temporary home, Indy Convergence. 2611 W. Michigan St.

Fresh as yesterday's headlines, "Building the Wall" takes a plausible look behind the facade of the Trump administration's messy approach to dealing with illegal immigration, including separation of families and their indefinite detention. It's fair to say that a prejudice against legal immigration as well has taken hold.

Could this enforced attitude result, by accident or design, in our country's becoming a place no one wants to come to? Even worse, is there already an Americanized "final solution" in the works?

As Gloria, a history professor, and Rick, a convict, Milicent Wright and Clay Mabbitt work through a narrative that explains how a Make America Great Again true believer has landed in prison for a crime that we only gradually learn about. The prologue to the revelations consists of extensive sparring over their respective stances in today's world. Rick plays defense well in response to Gloria's aggressive inquiry: How did this family man, this lover of order painstakingly building a career in security, end up in an orange jumpsuit baffled by what he sees as his victimization?

Looking in the same direction, seeing things differently.
That the playwright makes Gloria a historian rather than a journalist invites the audience to take a retrospective look at events that are happening, or are imagined to be happening, right now. Such a  perspective is unsettling. The prospect, however, is clear: The moral cost to the United States of a repressive attitude toward the influx of immigrants is incalculable. The intensity of Schenkkan's stageworthy responses to matters that should shame our country is evident from his much-laureled "Kentucky Cycle," which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for drama. "Building the Wall" similarly wants to hold our heads close to the mess we've made, like a dog being house-trained.

Fonseca positions his actors at either end of a long table, office-furniture-neutral and suggestive of the
prison setting, with a pitcher of water and two empty glasses in the center. It's a while before anyone takes a seat in the chairs at either end, indicative of the tension that envelops the drama from the start. It's an event when Rick pours himself a glass of water and drinks from it. There is well-judged movement of the actors in the course of the show — none of it extraneous, all of it visually captivating enough to convince us that we're not watching what might better have been a radio play. The audience sits on two sides  of the playing area parallel to the table length.

Mabbitt successfully inhabits a character whose intelligence has guided his career to a position of dizzying responsibility. But Rick is caught in a trap running a detention center without adequate official support. His moral imagination has been hemmed in by Trumpian ideology; the playwright gives him a real basis for his political stance, fortunately, but it hardly prepares Rick to face the requirements of his job. For a while, his chosen profession had seemed like an honest way of putting his belief in American sovereignty and security in practice. Eventually, his beleaguered conscience must yield to the insane pressures that result from an ill-conceived policy.

Gloria brings all this out of Rick until his defenses are in tatters. I question the rigorously tendentious manner of this character, who acts prosecutorially, despite the obvious fact that Rick's crimes are being officially punished as we watch. Despite Wright's steadily persuasive performance as a black woman well-practiced in the rigors of professional survival, I wanted the character to stand for more than a representation of liberal talking-points on immigration, coupled with her dogged pursuit of answers from a felon with much to answer for. Schenkkan has Gloria offer a painful vignette of her childhood in which a cop's racist insult left a mark on her soul, and we're grateful to get that. It means she doesn't simply stand for generic opposition to the inhumane course of U.S. treatment of immigrants and refugees. But I wish there were more to her as a character.

Despite the unfolding drama's focus on Rick, the pacing of the interview is given maximum dramatic impact through the persistence of Gloria's inquiry, reinforced with research paraphernalia — notebooks and folders and a recording device. The audience is teased into a horrific realization
of Rick's crime's enormity, and the calibrated agony that Mabbitt brings to his portrayal elicits a degree of sympathy for him that is meant to be rather embarrassing to feel. And Gloria's being appalled by what she's learning becomes, through Wright's performance, our shock as well. (Unfortunately, ceiling fans on high setting masked some of the dialogue at first.)

"Building the Wall" addresses the logical progress of an inhumane immigration policy that one hopes will be derailed somehow. The improbability of that is reinforced by the play. Schenkkan can be criticized for singlemindedness and hyperbole, I suppose, but the drama is worth taking in as an antidote to our toxic tendency to turn aside from the conditions it describes.

The production succeeds also as a way to underscore Fonseca's predilection, long pursued at the Phoenix Theatre, for new plays that are topical, edgy, and dramatically gripping. Add to that his commitment to diversity and you have in this new venture heartening prospects for the values he has long brought to the Indianapolis theater scene.

[Photos by Ben Rose]

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