In her book about the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, historian Hannah Arendt coined the famous phrase “the banality of evil” to describe how ordinary people become subservient to vile bureaucracies end up committing unspeakable atrocities. Eichmann could have been the model for Rick, the central character in “Building the Wall,” a new play about the Trump administration’s immigration policies at the Adobe Rose Theater in Santa Fe.
In this case the adjective “new” is quite literal. The play had its first performance in March of this year and its New York off-Broadway premier in May; the Adobe Rose is one of the initial five theaters in the nation to stage it although numerous others are planning on it.
The drama is a one-act, two-character story on a bare stage equipped only with a table, two chairs and a florescent light above the table. The only costumes are Rick’s orange prison uniform and the ordinary street clothes of Rick’s interrogator, Gloria, a young black professor.
Gloria’s role is to elicit explanations from Rick of his strange, repellent and—like Eichmann’s—ultimately inexplicable behavior. He argues that he was weak, vulnerable, impressionable and all too human. Are those sufficient reasons for committing atrocities?
Because of the set-up of questioner and prisoner, Gloria (Denise Louise Reddick) never fully materializes as a three-dimensional character. She peppers her questions with occasionally revealing personal details, especially an encounter with a white man who, when she was only 6 years old, made a lasting impression with a racist insult. But for the most part she confines herself to prodding Rick with questions and filling in the factual background of recent events, both real and imagined. Reddick, who is also a wood carver specializing in puppets, was part of the international touring company of Stomp, and has performed in several plays in New Mexico.
Rick (Tod Anderson), however, is a sharp contrast with Gloria. The constant focus of the 90-minute play, he alternates between confession and self-justification, tears and anger, aggression and defensiveness, hints of ironic self-comprehension and blind prejudice. Anderson, a highly experienced actor in Los Angeles theater productions and TV films (including The Lone Ranger and Longmire) does a masterful job of making Rick simultaneously sympathetic and repellent, understandable in his human weakness and disgusting in the frightening horror of his actions.
Robert Schenkkan wrote this dystopian tale last December in a single week of what he described as “white hot fury.”
He is one of the country’s most noted playwrights. His “The Kentucky Cycle” won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1992, and his “All the Way,” a dramatization of President Lyndon Johnson’s role in the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, won a Tony Award for best new play in 2014. His current effort is not of the same caliber, but its immediacy and intensity partially compensate for a mostly flat, humorless script and limited psychological insight. The story, incorporating current events as recent as February of this year, occurs in 2019. Step by logical step, President Trump’s hostility toward immigrants has led to a national tragedy reminiscent of the Holocaust. Rick finds himself—without any qualifications or any ambition to be there—the man at the center of tragedy and scandal, a role that leads directly to his wearing a prison uniform.
Director Kristin Goodman has carefully created a prison ambiance. Every member of the audience is given a red sticker and instructed to wear it at all times. The entrance to the auditorium is barred by two guards who pretend to do an airport-type security screening. The aisle into the auditorium is dark and lined with red lights. Grating music greets spectators as they await the performance. Noises of gates opening electronically and clanging shut and of heavy, forbidding footsteps approaching enhance the atmosphere.
In a director’s note, Goodman writes, “Throughout history humans have fallen for the same rhetoric that tells them that what they love is being threatened and that they need to choose hate over acceptance in order to save what they love. Why do humans do this? One reason is because social identification is a very real and vital part of a person.”
The social groups with which the two characters identify are a profound contrast in every respect except age (both are fairly young). Gloria is black, female, stiff, impersonal and usually unemotional, a highly educated intellectual who speaks with the formality and vocabulary of the elite.
Rick on the other hand is white, male, badly educated, tough, emotional—and prejudiced in a multiplicity of ways. His character is quickly developed as a prototypical Trump supporter. A school dropout, abused as a child, raised in a broken family, he serves in Iraq as a military policeman, becomes a civilian security guard, is recruited into a private immigration detention company and is promoted to warden of a detention center near El Paso—which is where all the trouble begins, and ends.
“Building the Wall,” part of the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere, continues at the Adobe Rose Theatre in Santa Fe, 1213 B Parkway Drive, through July 2, with performances Thursdays-Sundays. For information and tickets call 800-838-3006 ext. 1 or go to adoberosetheatre.org.