Pasa Reviews Building the Wall and Quality of Life
We shake our heads in consternation over the Nazi extermination camps, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, or the Rwandan genocide, but we reassure ourselves that at least it could never happen here. Robert Schenkkan is not so sure. Incensed by the tone of last year’s presidential campaign, the distinguished playwright channeled his emotions onto the page. The result was Building the Wall, a theater piece that suggests that societal evil — revolting, criminal, unthinkable evil — need not appear as a premeditated system put in place wholesale, but may instead spread its fatal embrace incrementally when people are too distracted to pay attention. Schenkkan received the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Kentucky
Cycle and was again in the spotlight when his All the Way (starring honorary New Mexican Bryan Cranston in its Broadway run) won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2014. He would have a good shot at getting his plays produced where and when he wants, which for a writer of serious, content-driven plays such as his would normally be Off-Broadway or in a major regional theater. This time, however, he took a populist approach and authorized a “rolling premiere” at smaller theaters — a run in New York, but also in Los Angeles, Denver, Washington, D.C., and for three weeks through Sunday, July 2, at Santa Fe’s Adobe Rose Theatre, where it is directed by Kristin Goodman.
In this two-character work, Gloria, an academic, secures a prison interview with Rick, who has been convicted of what are gradually revealed to be crimes against humanity. How did this happen? The tale starts with facts — actual headline stories from early 2017, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions voicing support for privately run jails. Then imagination takes over. In the aftermath of a terrorist incident, the president activated his campaign promise to round up undocumented residents and ship them out of the country. Lacking a reasonable system to process these people, grunt employees like Rick, pressured by bosses eyeing the bottom line and already overburdened by the normal demands of life, improvise their way to a place they never wanted to be.
The play has shortcomings. In fact, it’s hardly a play; it’s just two people in a room participating in a dialogue. Near the outset, Gloria voices regrets about how little time she has been allotted to plumb Rick’s story and then launches into a rather long monologue — not great time management. Several discursions into her own story and political background distract from the main thrust, although Danielle Louise Reddick plays the part with such polish, sincerity, and compassion that one appreciates those sidebars all the same. Todd Anderson, in a laudable performance as Rick, earns grudging sympathy from the audience by the end. Most viewers will find that this absorbing piece gets beneath their skin.
Less so Jane Anderson’s lead-footed play The Quality of Life, presented by New Mexico Actors Lab and also concluding its run on July 2. Through the interaction between two couples, it takes on more ethical-political issues than any single play should try to shoulder. Illegal drugs, assisted suicide, unassisted suicide, response to a child’s murder, response to a pet cat being eaten by a coyote — it’s all there. In this production, Anderson’s characters remain cardboard cut-outs whose stodgy, cliché-ridden conversations are mostly polemics rather than theater-worthy dialogue. — James M. Keller
Performances of “Building the Wall” continue at the Adobe Rose Theatre (1213-B Parkway, 505-629-8688) through Sunday, July 2. “The Quality of Life” plays through July 2 at Teatro Paraguas Studio (3205 Calle Marie, 505-424-1601).