a new play by Andrew Gall with material adapted from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden
At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220
Performances: May 27-June 26, 2021, live and streamed. May 27-29, previews. June 3 Premiere. June 18-20 live & live stream.
Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 in person & live stream
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org
What is more appropriate as we emerge from more than a year of pandemic restrictions than a play based on the experiences of a man in prison (Andrew Gall’s fictional Lester Franklin) reading a book about a man who spent two years living in isolation in the woods (the American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau)? Andrew Gall’s new play, Walled In, is, indeed, a play on Thoreau’s Walden, and while Gall liberally utilizes Thoreau’s words, his character, a MAGA-hat wearing Republican corporate lawyer who is in jail “taking one for the team” and wondering what happened to his promised pardon is very much a man of the twenty-first century. White, privileged, on the far side of middle age, Franklin is an angry, foul-mouthed, entitled creature whose own wife and daughter seem eager to sanitize their hands of his particular brand of filth. Whew. If that seems wordy, it’s just a hint of what to expect when you see Walled In.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things…” – Henry David Thoreau
The exact details of how Franklin landed in prison are not necessary. We first meet him having a hissy fit after being assigned to clean the prison toilets. It doesn’t take long for him to be assigned to a prison education program where his class is assigned to read and journal about Thoreau’s two-year social-spiritual experiment, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, a far shorter sentence than what our friend Franklin might expect.
Doug Blackburn plays the role of Franklin in this one-person play (although two other actors lend their voices as the unseen Instructor (Todd Labelle, who is also the Production Designer) and Hicks, a prisoner in an adjacent cell (Rudy Mitchell). I could say Blackburn is a strong presence, but the playwright doesn’t really give him any other option. Franklin is an angry man. He strings together lines of expletives as if he were training for an Olympic competition in obscenities. (The program includes the “WARNING: This play contains very strong language that some may find offensive.”) It comes as no surprise when Act One ends with Franklin collapsing on the floor after yet another round of screaming into the wall phone – a phone to which he apparently has unlimited access. But there are also beautiful if rare poetic interludes, as in the description of an old unwashed coat that smells of Old Spice and bonfires.
Act Two begins with Franklin lounging on his cot reading. Hicks, the closest thing he has to a friend, refers to him endearingly as Heart Attack, and the bean plant he had tossed into the toilet is inexplicably flourishing on his nightstand. Yes, Hicks says he replanted it, but how did he retrieve it from the toilet and get it onto Franklin’s nightstand? Hmm? I do not consider it a SPOILER to tell you that Franklin’s journey of self-discovery while reading Thoreau does not result in a magical transformation. It does not make him any more likable. In the end, he is not redeemed but instead released on house arrest after Hicks dies of COVID-19, which Franklin refers to as the “China virus.” The point is not the destination but the journey. There is a lot of kicking and screaming; the two hours (with an intermission at the 80-minute mark) must be exhausting for Blackburn. It certainly is not an easy ride for the audience. Still, it is timely and raw and for some, seeing the character Franklin, who represents so much of what we hate about politics and privilege, in prison and no longer able to call the shots, is smugly satisfying. In a recent interview with Jerry Williams on the “Curtain Call” podcast, Gall described Lester Franklin as “a sort of Ebenezer Scrooge,” yet I doubt Franklin achieved any real redemption. Lester Franklin is an awful person; Doug Blackburn is a wonderful actor (assuming he is nothing like Franklin).
Gall relocated to RVA from North Carolina during the pandemic, and this is his first offering as part of the local theater community. Gall wrote and directed Walled In. Blackburn has been seen previously in the Firehouse production of Wrong Chopped. The lights, projections, and sound score for Walled In are fabulous. Production Designer Todd Labelle and Composer/Sound Designer Mark Messing have created a simple set (a wall phone, a cell featuring a toilet, night table, and cot, and a single wooden school desk) that is beautifully enhanced with a soundscape featuring train whistles and bullfrogs, owls and whippoorwills and other sounds. Lights and projections effectively transform the bare walls into the woods surrounding Walden Pond, adding depth and dimension to an otherwise flat space.
Walled In is not the kind of play you leave smiling and telling everyone how much you liked it. It is a play that makes you angry. It makes you think. And you leave feeling that things have got to change. Redemption isn’t just for individuals; it’s for systems.
Written and directed by Andrew Gall
Performed by Doug Blackburn
Featuring the voices of Todd Labelle and Rudy Mitchell
Sound Designer – Mark Messing
Costume Designer – Colin Lowrey II
Production Designer – Todd Labelle
Assistant Director – Grace Brown
Production Associate – Claire Bronchick
Stage Manager – Kasey Britt
Thu, May 27 @ 7:30pm / invited preview
Fri, May 28 @ 7:30pm / invited preview
Sat, May 29@ 7:30pm / invited preview
Thu, June 3 @ 7:30pm
Fri, June 4 @ 7:30pm
Sat, June 5 @ 7:30pm
Sun, June 6 @ 3:00pm
Thu, June 10 @ 7:30pm
Fri, June 11 @ 7:30pm
Sat, June 12 @ 7:30pm
Sun, June 13 @ 3:00pm
Thu, June 17 @ 7:30pm
Fri, June 18 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)
Sat, June 19 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)
Sun, June 20 @ 3:00pm (live + live stream)
Thu, June 24 @ 7:30pm
Fri, June 25 @ 7:30pm
Sat, June 26, 7:30pm
$33 live and live stream