In November of 1998, the novelist and iconoclastic leftist essayist Gore Vidal wrote in Vanity Fair that mass murderer Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Office building in Oklahoma as a way of lashing out against a Federal government which was itself murderous, and that he, Vidal, shared McVeigh’s view that the United States had turned from a sturdy little republic into an anti-democratic empire. Vidal pointed out that McVeigh’s slaughter took place two years from the date of the FBI confrontation with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in which most of the Davidians were killed. To Vidal, McVeigh was a patriot who, as he said in a later essay, “went to war pretty much on his own.”
Of course, while Vidal and McVeigh may have shared the same viewpoint, their modes of expression were quite different. Vidal wrote piquant essays from his villa in Italy. McVeigh killed 168 people. Nonetheless, Vidal’s 1998 essay provoked McVeigh to write to him, and ultimately Vidal, at McVeigh’s invitation, attended his execution in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Edmund White’s Terre Haute is a re-imagining of their epistolary encounter as a death-row interview, thinly disguising Vidal as “James” (Steve Nixon) and McVeigh as “Harrison” (James Radack). White does some minor surgery to the historical record – James lives in Paris, not Italy, and has done a term in the Senate (Vidal ran for public office, but did not hold it) – but by and large gets most of the story down. James speaks in person on Waco and the Branch Davidians in much the same way as Vidal wrote, and Harrison responds in a way consistent with McVeigh’s public utterances. James confronts Harrison with Vidal’s theory that the killer may have been set up by the FBI to do the Murrah bombing so that it would be easier to pass legislation broadening the Agency’s powers; Harrison, as McVeigh did throughout the period following his trial, insists that he worked alone.
It is, of course, highly ironic that Vidal’s speculations from the left leads him to some conclusions shared by McVeigh, a paranoid right-wing survivalist. But, White argues in this piece, had Vidal viewed the whole of McVeigh’s thinking through a glass, darkly, he would have been overwhelmed by the shabbiness of the killer’s ideas: the affection for “The Nat Turner Diaries” and for ideas about a New World Order run by Jewish bankers. This is what happens to James in Terre Haute, and he emerges a shaken, and lonely man.
SeeNoSun OnStage does a nice job with this provocative piece, eerily producing the hopeless atmosphere of a death-row prison cell (Matt Vossekuil’s lighting plot is important in obtaining this effect). Radack is magnificent as Harrison, capturing beautifully the killer’s struggle to show himself as a complex human being who is a soldier for his cause, instead of an emblem or, as he puts it, “a thing.” Director Michael Wright moves matters along crisply, although there are a few trivial errors throughout the show (this mishandling of a prop, for example.)
Nixon, unfortunately, does not fully embody the character of James, at least not at this point in the run. He gets the sneer down, and the writer’s contempt for America in general and Terre Haute, Indiana in particular. We get James’ delight in his own ability to shock and outrage, and his ambiguous sexuality. Although Nixon is obviously a younger man than the character he portrays, he makes James fragile enough so that we can suspend disbelief and get on with the show.
But James is the central character of this two-person piece, in that he is the character who is shaken and changed by this experience. Nixon doesn’t lay the groundwork for this change, and when the lines come, they seem unearned. When James talks about his long-dead lover, Bud, Nixon makes it look as though he’s trying to provoke Harrison. It is only later, in his hotel room, when he wonders aloud why he mentioned Bud to Harrison that we understand how lonely the writer is. Similarly, and more importantly, James’ final confrontation with Harrison seems to come out of the blue. There had been no previous indication that James had any horror or rage over Harrison’s criminal acts, or the thinking that led up to them. This previous indication, if it is to come at all, must come from the actor playing James, as the text does not put it in there…and it’s crucial to understanding the play.
Nonetheless, this is good work, bound to get better as Nixon becomes more comfortable with his role. SeeNoSun does us a service in bringing this provocative play to life. By compelling us to confront an unspeakable act, through the eyes of characters who believe they understand it, Terre Haute expands our understanding, which is the highest goal of theater.
By Edmund White
Produced by SeeNoSun OnStage
Directed by Michael Wright
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 70 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?