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BWW Review: WALLED IN at Firehouse Theatre

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Andrew Gall's new play "Walled In," in its world premiere, veers from venality to transcendence in a lengthy ordeal that nevertheless has its satisfactions.

BWW Review: WALLED IN at Firehouse Theatre

Directed by the playwright, the action takes place in a federal penitentiary, where we meet Lester Franklin, a Bernie Madoff type who's willingly taken the fall for some financial misdeeds. He thinks there's a deal in place to get him out quickly, but his release is unexpectedly delayed.

While serving his sentence Franklin enrolls in a prison education course on "Walden," Henry David Thoreau's 1854 book about his time living in a simple hut on the shore of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Franklin (played with unflagging energy by Doug Blackburn), being a brash, amoral business guy, is at first predictably unmoved by the book.

Gall uses a couple of devices to help us get to know Franklin better--we listen in on his (apparently unlimited) phone calls to impatient colleagues and alienated family members; we hear him interact with the unseen guy in the next cell; and the unseen teacher of the "Walden" class requires journal writing, so we hear Franklin recite what he's writing in his notebook. These methods of exposition are sometimes awkward. Pandemic theater may mandate one-character shows, but exchanges between actors are sorely missed.

Still, there are distinct pleasures in this work. The second act, when Franklin has suffered a crisis and seems a changed man, is lovely and lyrical; I would happily listen to Blackburn's warm voice reading odes to nature from "Walden" for hours. Production designer Todd Labelle's set is simple--a bed, a toilet, a chair, a phone--but the projections used are lovely and evocative. And Mark Messing's sound design is a real work of art, from the background noise of the prison to the laughing of loons. Even the clarity and precise placement of the voices of the unseen characters is magical.

At: Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., Richmond

Through: June 26, plus live streams of selected performances

Tickets: $33

Info: firehousetheatre.org or (804) 355-2001

Photo credit: Bill Sigafoos


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