Lester Franklin is a bad man, but he might be able to read his way toward redemption in “Walled In,” the new play premiering at the Firehouse Theatre this week.
“He is not likable,” says actor Doug Blackburn, who plays Lester in the one-man show. “If he was sitting next to you at a table at a dinner party, you would hate it. My problem is I have to make him charming as hell – the charming, roguish asshole.”
Local playwright and director Andrew Gall, who created Lester, was inspired by news stories about high-profile political criminals like Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, he says. It was election season in the middle of the pandemic and Gall had been mulling over how to bring “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau’s collection of essays on simple living and self-reliance, to the stage.
“[What] seemed least interesting to me was the idea of having somebody dressed up as Henry David Thoreau talking about Walden,” Gall explains. “I really wanted to find something that would mirror the experience, that would kind of put some of what he was writing about into a perspective that people would be able to grasp and understand.”
Drawing on his own experiences as a college professor in North Carolina, where he worked on an outreach program with local prisoners, coupled with news stories he was reading at the time, Gall created a volatile character, someone “who would be completely opposed and … revolted by this book, who would then be forced to have an encounter with it.”
“I thought that could be interesting: How they wrestle with the book, try to defeat the book,” he adds.
Lester starts off as a toxic person: angry and overly aggressive. But as the play progresses and he finds himself enrolled in the prison education program, the audience gets to witness his journey as he interacts with Thoreau’s text.
At first, the character hates the essays, but then things happen in his own life and he’s forced to encounter the work on different terms, Gall explains.
“That’s really what it’s a play about,” he says. “You know, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s like a full-scale redemption, but it’s definitely along those lines. He definitely finds things that open his eyes and surprise him.”
Lester’s journey with “Walden” might, in some ways, mirror Gall’s own shifting relationship to the text.
“Thoreau [and] I had a terrible breakup,” Gall recalls. “In 1980-whatever, when I was 14 or however old I was, I was bored by the book. I hated it.” But when he started to reread the text as he began work on this play, Gall says it hit him differently.
He found reading the work in his 40s to be a much different experience.
“By this point, I've had a lot more experience in the world and I've had some great things happen and I've had some really horrible heartbreak and heartbreaking and painful things happen. So I was really kind of able to appreciate a lot more of what I was reading.”
Through Lester’s journey with “Walden” while incarcerated, Gall hopes to share some of that appreciation with Richmond audiences.
Blackburn says the role has been a challenge not only because Lester is such a difficult character, but because it’s also his first time tackling a one-man show.
“The opportunity to do two and a half, close to three hours by myself? That’s a challenge. That’s rarified air, you know? Not everybody has the ability to go that long, that hard and I want to see if I can pull it off,” Blackburn admits.
He warns that the play might be a challenge for the audience, as well.
“It’s verbose, loquacious – this guy has a full command of the English language – and it’s long. But if you're willing to step into the theater: [It] might be showing you something you might have never seen before. Beyond that, I’ll just leave it on the stage.”
Firehouse Theatre’s World Premiere of “Walled In” runs from May 27 through June 26. Live and livestream tickets cost $33. firehousetheatre.org.