Flavorwire Required Viewing: Edmund White’s Terre Haute

It intrigued us when we heard that the openly gay novelist Edmund White was writing a play about a homophobic, white supremacist on death row forming a bond with an overeducated, flamboyant writer. Workshopped at the Sundance Theatre Lab before having a successful London run, Terre Haute (which runs at 59E59 Theaters through February 15) imagines conversations between Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and author Gore Vidal with unsentimental compassion and spare dialog that highlights the characters’ struggle to communicate.

McVeigh contacted Vidal after reading his work and the two corresponded for years but never met (in fact, Vidal threatened to sue White for implying that they had). White’s 80-minute intermission-free one-act is a series of meetings between two very similar men who have bonded over letters: an older bisexual journalist, James, and a Gulf War vet turned terrorist bomber, Harrison. Taking place during Harrison’s final days on death row, there’s an inescapable urgency that’s the lifeblood of Terre Haute.

James is tasked with writing Harrison’s “story” after the execution, but his body is failing him. He has to travel to the prison in a wheelchair. When we meet James, he’s worrying about making a good impression on Harrison and frets over what to wear. He wants to appear elegant. He wants the death row inmate to explain the details of the bombing to him in a way that he’s never revealed to anyone before. And most importantly, he wants Harrison to like him. While the two men bond over the absurdity of James landing on the terrorist watch list, the journo quickly becomes preoccupied with the details of the bombing, particularly how many children were killed and whether Harrison knew about the day care center in the building. As James, Peter Eyre seamlessly switches between his adoration of Harrison’s youthful naïvety and revulsion at his murderous crimes.

Harrison isn’t remorseful about the civilians he killed, and quotes Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” He takes this literally and finds it ironic that while he was given a medal for killing people in Iraq, he’s now being put to death for doing what he was trained to do. Nick Westrate’s nuanced performance avoids the pitfall of playing the McVeigh character as a villain, and there are moments when we can see him outside of the confines of his cell, outside of the crime that defines him. There are even eerie moments when we catch ourselves agreeing with him.

This is Edmund White’s greatest accomplishment, creating a space between good and evil where the lines are blurred. Moralizing is thankfully absent from the play. In its place is a powerful and lingering feeling that evil doesn’t exist in a vacuum and isn’t always easy to recognize.