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A CurtainUp Review
Terre Haute

You seem like you were the average American kid until you went off to the Gulf War..— James
Terre Haute
Peter Eyre
(Photo: Valentina Medda)
What may repel many playgoers about Edmund White's Terre Haute is what will attract others to it. This transfer from London's West End, currently running at 59E59 Theaters, is inspired by Gore Vidal's real-life correspondence with the notorious Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, which developed after Vidal defended him in print in Vanity Fair.

McVeigh, who read Vidal's articles in prison, penned a letter to the famous author, asking him to visit him on death row. Vidal never did, but White creates a fictive scenario in Terre Haute that gives us an intriguing look at what might have transpired if he had.

The sensational nature of the subject matter holds the audience's attention from the get-go. In a domestic terror attack, McVeigh brutally killed 168 people in Oklahoma City's Murrah Federal Building on April 1995. The victims included 19 children under the age of 5. Americans were not only shocked by this epic and retaliatory crime (committed on the anniversary of the Waco incident), but by McVeigh's complete lack of remorse.

But it's not only the sensationalism that holds audience attention. The 80-minute intermissionless play is orchestrated like a pas de deux. It's a riveting portrait of the writer and the terrorist, renamed Harrison (the McVeigh character) and James (the Vidal stand-in). White has created a rich tapestry of dialogue that not only details their cross-fire of ideas but lays bare their souls.

White focuses on some very dark American themes. While the play may have been sparked from the real-life correspondence of McVeigh and Vidal, it branches out into a much broader context, and uncovers a number of raw controversial political topics. In fact, this imagined death row interchange prompts us to carefully reflect on the slippery boundaries between government-sanctioned killing (as in the Gulf War) and politically-motivated crimes (as in McVeigh's bombing of the Murrah Building). That's not to say that McVeigh is presented in a sympathetic light, but it does humanize him.

The play also leaves us asking questions about the nature of psychopaths, criminality, and even the flaws of the present American judicial system. Perhaps it also reminds us that no subject is ever off limits in the theater, no matter how unpleasant. Violence, after all, has been a staple of the theater since its very beginning. Consider Oedipus Rex, Medea, King Lear, and so many, many other classics, old and new.

In addition to changing the characters' names, White has also taken some poetic license by slightly remolding the real-life men. Vidal has always been a colorful and vibrant personality, but McVeigh in real life was far more passive than his imagined stage persona here.

The acting is outstanding. Peter Eyre is suave as the 71-year-old writer, and Nick Westrate is convincing as the unrepentant Oklahoma bomber. Early on, the characters seem to be playing a dark game of hide-and-seek. But as James and Harrison psychologically find each other out, their child-like game playing is jettisoned in favor of old-fahioned honesty.

Terre Haute chillingly unfolds in the three days preceding Harrison's execution by lethal injection, which lends a sense of urgency to the men's verbal exchanges. Both deliver their lines as if trying to outdo each other. The tables, however, are often turned, as when James, in one of his final addresses to the audience, confesses that he's lost his reporter's objectivity—, if he ever had it at all. Bonding is the bottom line here. Or as James poignantly sums it at one point: "Yes, we're both on death row."

Curiously, there are many comic moments in the evening. Much of the humor arises from the incongruous pairing of an older patrician writer with a young red-necked mass-murderer. Dressed in orange overalls in his cage-like cell, Westrate's Harrison doesn't try to elevate himself morally or socially to the distinguished writer. Still, the impeccably mannered James is unmistakably attracted to this outcast. He makes little effort to disguise his affectionate (and sexual) feelings for the prisoner who he says bears an uncanny resemblance to his former lover To the virginal, straight Harrison, this is but another dark comic twist in his life—Love that is unobtainable, and offered by the wrong person.

George Perrin helms the top drawer production with a steady hand to keep things from toppling over into sentimentality or becoming outright depressing, but instead a fascinating meeting between two forlorn characters, one of whom has no tomorrow, and the other who has undertaken to write about his tragic story. If Synge's Playboy of the Western World teased us with the improbable idea that a murderer can elicit admiration from decent folks, then this new work more seriously explores the strange phenomenon of our morose fascination with mass-murderers.

Terre Haute
Written by Edmund White
Directed by George Perrin
Cast: Peter Eyre (James), Nick Westrate (Harrison).
Sets: Hannah Clark
Sound: Heather Fenoughty
Lighting: Matthew Eagland
Stage Manager: Amy Kaskeski
59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59 Street. Tickets are $35. For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212/ 279-4200
From 1/13/09; opening 1/18/09/closing 2/15/09.
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.
Tuesday through Friday @ 8:15pm; Saturday @ 2:15pm @ 8:15pm; and Sunday @ 3:15pm .
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on January 15th press performance

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