An American Disaster in 2019: Building the Wall at Stage Left Theatre

Photo by Tyler Core.

If you go to the theater to get away from the nasty divisiveness of today’s news, then Stage Left Theatre’s new production, Building the Wall, is not for you. Robert Schenkkan’s play is set in 2019, two years from now. The Trump administration has declared martial law after a terrorist attack in Times Square. Tens of thousands of immigrants have been rounded up and imprisoned in unsavory conditions in a corporate-owned camp.

Building the Wall, directed by Amy Szerlong, is a claustrophobic, two-character play set in a prison interrogation room. Rick (Tony Buzzuto), a former security officer and head of a privatized internment camp, is being interviewed by Gloria (Kanomé Jones), a history professor. She’s interviewing him for a possible book about what happened to bring about the disaster for which he’s been tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Explaining, she says, “When a moment of change arrives and History finally lurches in a new direction, what sets it in motion? …. Every landslide begins with a single rock suddenly in motion. We’re at one of those moments right now. You’re at the heart of it. … I think it’s critical, to understand you, Rick. Understand why you did what they say you did.”

The disaster itself is teased out through the course of the interview. With Gloria’s questioning, Rick tells about his life growing up in a military family with a strict and possibly abusive father and trying to find his way to a life and a career. He joins the Army after 9/11 and serves as an MP. He works for a security firm when he’s released. That leads to his assignment to the internment camp after Trump declares martial law.

The script makes clear that this is Trump’s America, detailing 2016 campaign rhetoric and the Trump presidency. (He’s no longer president, however, having been impeached and exiled to Palm Beach, as Gloria observes.) Rick was a Trump supporter and tells about meeting the candidate at a rally. Gloria was also affected by the wars in the Middle East; her brother, a Marine, was killed by an IED.

Your stomach may be tied in knots at some of the descriptions in Rick’s discourse. The problem is that there’s really no tension between the two characters. Rick wants his side of the story told but his answers are no surprise to Gloria. Szerlong’s direction is capable and both Buzzuto and Jones give fine performances. But perhaps it’s too soon for this play. Do we need a little time for current issues to become good theater?

Playwright Schenkkan says he wrote Building the Wall after the 2016 election “in a white-hot fury.” His other work includes the award-winning play and film, All the Way, and co-authorship of the recent film, Hacksaw Ridge.

Building the Wall by Stage Left Theatre runs 80 minutes and continues at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport, through October 22 with performances Thursday-Sunday. Tickets for $22-32 can be purchased through the Athenaeum box office or by calling 773-935-6875.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.