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Theatre Review: Red Herring’s Taut and Disturbing ‘Building the Wall’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Red Herring’s Taut and Disturbing ‘Building the Wall’Leslie Battle (as Gloria), Rick Napoli (as Rick) in Red Herring's production of Building the Wall. Photo Credit: Michelle Batt
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The core of most good writing – if it has the nerve – is an act of love, an attempt to understand. Live theatre – by putting these characters as flesh and blood people in front of us – has a sharper direct line to empathy than most other art forms. Robert Schenkkan’s near-future dystopian two hander, Building the Wall, sharply traces the outline of those goals in Red Herring’s electrifying production, directed by Michael Garrett Herring.

Gloria (Leslie Battle), a history professor, visits Rick (Rick Napoli), at the maximum security prison where Rick serves solitary for an undisclosed term with no end in sight. The biographical interview fills in these two characters as it traces the slippery slope from Rick’s vague dissatisfaction that his life didn’t live up to its promises into an act of undeniable horror.

An investigation into the banality of evil is well-trod ground – Hannah Arendt on – but an evergreen exercise with positive impacts as the darkness of each moment needs specifically prodded. Flashes of specificity keep Schenkkan’s take fresh and Battle and Napoli breathe those sparks in a raging, complicated fire. 

Leslie Battle (as Gloria), Rick Napoli (as Rick) in Red Herring’s production of
Building the Wall. Photo Credit: Michelle Batt

The struggle within Battle’s Gloria, knowing that editorializing will taint her research but fighting a visceral revulsion, is a subtle, riveting dance. Napoli’s Rick is a coiled spring on the verge of snapping, even more terrifying in the moments he lets himself go slack or appear to.

Herring amps up the claustrophobic cage match of the prison setting and the intimate confines of the Franklinton Playhouse to devastating effect. That dark dance between director and performers lifts Building the Wall out of what could be a mundane, talky piece into a taut, 80-minute ride at the edge of your seat.

Building the Wall runs through August 24 with performances at 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit www.redherring.info.

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