Writer, death-row bomber connect in ‘Terre Haute’
Edmund White’s play “Terre Haute” imagines an encounter between a famous writer and an incarcerated infamous domestic terrorist.
Seattle Times theater critic
By Edmund White. Through June 15, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; tickets start at $25 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
After a long hiatus, Bridges Stage Company is in revival mode with a taut production of the 2006 drama “Terre Haute” by Edmund White.
Tucked aptly (due to its prison setting) into the black box confines of ACT Theatre’s Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space, this is a rare play by White, an author best known for his essays and memoirs reflecting on love and homosexuality.
The backstory of the script is at least as intriguing as the work itself — which is a dialogue between an erudite, elder author called James, who visits in prison Harrison, a young man convicted of the devastating Oklahoma City bombing of a federal government building.
White has made no secret of the fact that James (excellently played by veteran actor Norman Newkirk as a suave, coy old viper, with occasional signs of warm blood coursing under that cool reptilian exterior) is a stand-in for famed writer Gore Vidal, and that Harrison (portrayed by Robert Bergin as both a wily stoic and frustrated fanatic) represents Timothy McVeigh.
McVeigh, you will recall, was a medaled Gulf War veteran, executed for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah government building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured more than 600 others.
After being apprehended by the authorities, McVeigh confessed to the crime and called himself a “soldier” in a war against an overzealous federal government that had murdered innocent people in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the 1992 storming of Randy Weaver’s Ruby Ridge homestead in Idaho.
Unlike in the play, Gore Vidal never met McVeigh face-to-face. Nor did he flirt with and become repulsed by contact with a death-row inmate, the way James does with Harrison — and as did writer Truman Capote (whose ghost rises here) with one of the convicted murderers profiled in his nonfiction book, “In Cold Blood.”
But Vidal did receive several letters from McVeigh, who shared the novelist and literary gadfly’s alarm over what he saw as the erosion of individual rights set down in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. And McVeigh did, like in the play, invite Vidal to witness his execution — which the writer, then in his mid-70s and living in Italy, did not attend.
In a 2001 piece in Vanity Fair, penned days after McVeigh was put to death, Vidal wrote at detailed length about his own investigation into the Murrah Building bombing. He also quoted from the articulate, friendly letters he’d received from McVeigh.
But it seems clear Vidal’s interest in the man was fairly impersonal and issue-oriented. Vidal castigated the mainstream press for branding McVeigh in simplistic psychological strokes as a crazed, blackhearted zealot, rather than recognizing his intelligence, his military and other relevant experience and examining the roots and reasons for his actions. Instead of probing why McVeigh and others would be compelled to such dark deeds, the media simply condemned them, in his view.
Vidal also thought the evidence of McVeigh’s guilt, as the bombing mastermind, was inconclusive, and suggested he may have been framed, duped or involved in a wider conspiracy — theories others have entertained also.
White, on the other hand, imagined a kind of mutual seduction. His cellblock encounters begin as a game of chess with a dogged interviewer trying to checkmate revelations out of his evasive subject. Eventually, these two very smart but wary individuals both drop their guards fleetingly, revealing glimpses of vulnerability, pity and (on James’ part) sexual longing, as they each face mortality.
It is hard to assess the sum of “Terre Haute” (named after the federal prison in Indiana where McVeigh was held), except to say that its single act holds one’s interest. Yet it ultimately paints itself into a corner, where James is at last repelled by an unrepentant mass murderer, while still feeling attracted to him — in a creepy way that’s both paternal and erotic.
Director Aaron Levin and his actors mine the script’s many flashes of wit and cleverness, its subtle tensions and shifting power balance. And “Terre Haute” is certainly more engrossing and dramatic than the ornately verbose Vanity Fair article it draws on.
But Vidal’s points in Vanity Fair about constitutional issues and media mediocrity are more substantially, genuinely provocative.
And the play did not exactly endear one writer to another. In 2007, Vidal announced he was considering suing White for suggesting in “Terre Haute” that he’d been sexually attracted to McVeigh. Asked for comment, White said Vidal had signed off on the play — and reminded everyone that art doesn’t always imitate life, even when it pretends to.
Misha Berson: email@example.com