nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
January 17, 2009
Most of us would not actively pursue being locked in a room with a mass murderer. I think that's safe to say. But that's exactly what James does in Edmund White's Terre Haute. Granted, the meeting takes place in a prison and Harrison, the other character in this two-person show, is sealed in a chamber inside the room, but that doesn't mean that he isn't a threat in this smart and unexpectedly touching new play, presented by the nabokov theater company at 59E59.
Terre Haute is based on a series of interviews Gore Vidal conducted with Timothy McVeigh during McVeigh's incarceration for bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City. White has changed the names to loosen some of the narrative restrictions imposed adhering to historical fact, but much of the information in the play is as we might remember it. Harrison is a U.S. Army veteran who is awaiting his own death sentence for exploding a truck outside the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 people in what was, at the time, the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil. James is, in White's own words, "the quintessential Europeanized American," a writer of great fame who has come to Harrison's attention by making an argument in Harrison's favor in the press. Harrison begins writing to James who, in turn, agrees to visit—in White's account, just days before Harrison's death—for a series of interviews that will tell Harrison's story from what Harrison hopes is a sympathetic perspective.
Peter Eyre (James) and Nick Westrate (Harrison) both do fine work. While Eyre is initially the smoother performer, Westrate really starts to shine in the moments when he's taken by Harrison's more fanatical, irrational energy. Westrate is capable of making these moments big without placing all of the focus on himself, which is also credit to George Perrin's nuanced directing. Perrin clearly illustrates the way the power shifts—both slightly and significantly—between these two men, which is crucial since both actors are relatively restricted physically.
Terre Haute proceeds fairly conventionally—the tables are turned and the interviewer ends up revealing more about himself than the subject does—but that's almost to be expected and it allows for an even study of both characters. What makes this play important, though, is the fairness with which it depicts the terrorist's perspective. White doesn't condone the terrorist (and, for that matter, James isn't persuaded, regardless of his and Harrison's shared criticism of the U.S. government) but he gives us a character who explains why he committed the horrible act that he did and stands behind it to the end. As an audience member, it is much more satisfying to see that reasoning before us—and to watch James try to wrap his head around it—than to simplify the people who commit these atrocities as being crazy. The problem of terrorism, White suggests, may not be rational, but it is also not easy.
Midway through the play, Harrison asks James if he will stay and watch his execution. As someone who is essentially on his deathbed, Harrison needs comfort. James, meanwhile, finds himself attracted to the handsome former soldier. This leads to a very nice ending moment, though the homoeroticism that is very much on the surface is too pronounced to, ultimately, be very convincing. So, while the final moment between these characters is touching, I didn't fully buy it. But that hardly takes away from the experience of this show.