Review: White's 'Terre Haute' Haunts

Homicidal boys-next-door might not be your cup-of-tea.  And maybe arthritic bisexual political-analysts aren't your type.  But playwright Edmund White ties this decadent pair into one of the most exceptionally-performed small-theatre dramas in San Francisco this year.

The New Conservatory Theatre Center keeps the adrenaline pumping with the US premiere of White's Terre Haute, a two-man show first developed at the Sundance Institute 2006.  Based on an imagined conversation between notorious Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and notable writer Gore Vidal, the 80-minute play is gripping and brilliantly steered by two talented actors.

White's controversial script isn't loaded with exposition or force-fed morals.  Instead Terre Haute is functionally divided into four 20-minute interview segments between James (the Vidal) and Harrison (the McVeigh), interspersed with brief asides.  What we discover is not sympathy for Harrison, but a surprising attempt at understanding the mind of a terrorist; something we may never have wanted to consider or learn.

John Hutchinson, with a head of wispy white hair and wobbly knees, is commanding as James.  Leaning on his cane and toting a tape-recorder, we find him to be quite amiable and trusting; comfortable in the shoes he fills as a pushy and curious research journalist.  A mix of hoity-toity and intellectual snobbery, his age also brings a gentle self-awareness and ease at conversation.

"I want him to tell me all about the bombing," says James before meeting Harrison in solitary-confinement, "All the details.  Something he hasn't told anyone.  I want him to like me."

James enters the space, and when the lights come up, we find ourselves flush against the prison's linoleum floor, breaths away from the action.  Intricately woven fishing-wire gives the illusion of safety glass while a solo cello hums quietly into silence.  In the 6-x-12-foot "cage" is Harrison, portrayed by the adept Elias Escobedo.  His piercing brown eyes and sharp features are riveting as he paces, clad only in dirty slip-on shoes and a khaki jumpsuit.  He barks his first few lines like a faulty spark-plug.

"There is something dangerous about meeting one's pen-pal," says James, who had started a written-relationship with Harrison beforehand.  Now that they meet face to face, James is unashamed in his curiosity.  He drills questions like an expert dart-thrower…from praise to insult to humiliation to concession.  White's play constructs James into a master-interviewer, rousing and taming Harrison minute-by-minute.

Harrison is four days away from execution and desperate to have his say.  But each question James brings to the table unearths another telling clue into the mind of a murderer (and into the mind of the interviewer).  James confides that Harrison reminds him of an old fling he had in the army.  Despite Harrison's anxiety and violent outbursts, James is allured by his foolishness and his looks.  Escobedo's veiny arms and buzzed hair are a turn-on.  But his character's lack of remorse for the death of innocent children (what he deems "collateral damage") is just as much a turn-off.

Through a series of proverbial orgasms, James and Harrison meet eye-to-eye in bashing the American government.  Both are disgusted by invasions of privacy, censorship, dirty politicians and the FBI.  Both are outraged by the events of Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas.  Only James didn't blow up a building…something he feels Harrison wouldn't have resorted to had he only been "properly stimulated intellectually."

Harrison later explains that he "learned his lessons from the government" and feels he is "booed" for doing the same thing service-men are applauded for doing overseas – killing the enemy.  Harrison's tunnel-vision would make anyone's blood-pressure rise, but our yearning to know how he did it keeps us enthralled.

But James is not without his faults, as we learn later in a heated Scene 3.  He is depressed by his age and boredom.  Having toyed with the subject of sexuality at the beginning of the interview, he is not reluctant to confess he has bought love from men for much of his life.  With the protection of the glass between them, James can fondle expressions like "young, dumb and full of cum" to get a rise from his subject.

The pay-off of course lies in an emotion-laden final sequence where Escobedo brings a hush over the crowd, detailing the entire events of April 19, 1995.  James has gotten what he needed: the facts.  And yet he is still itching with questions of remorse… and sex.  What we witness next is a beautifully uncomfortable and teary-eyed revelation.

White provides us a concise and haunting retelling of the facts, plus an imaginative and realistic creation of "what could have been." But he pushes the envelope in the final moments, taking the liberty to play with Harrison (and subsequently, McVeigh's) sexuality.  Does the liberty one man took in stealing the lives of 188 individuals equal the liberty another man to invent the last days of that man's life? The answer lays somewhere between the artistry of White's script, the shadows of those who died, and the applause.

Terre Haute: by Edmund White, directed by Christopher Jenkins starring Elias Escobedo and John Hutchinson, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through May 6, 2007. 80mins with no intermission. Tickets ($28-$34) are available at 415-861-8972 or NCTC is located at 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market in San Francisco. Photos by Lois Tema.

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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)