Friday, August 10, 2012

Play: Terre Haute

Terre Haute (Ecce Homo, Dir: Alistair Newton)

SummerWorks Festival (Lower Ossington Theatre). Thursday, August 9, 2012.

Edmund White's meditation on "American loneliness" fictionalizes the epistolary relationship between author Gore Vidal (renamed "James") and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (renamed "Harrison"). Although in the real world the pair only maintained an on-and-off correspondence, White's play extends that to have James visiting Harrison in his final days before being executed.1 Both have agendas and hidden agendas — Harrison not only wanting to find someone to get the facts of his case and his motivations straight, but to sympathize with him; James not only wanting to act as a gadfly in the service of Imperial America's waning liberty, but perhaps also to give himself a late-life literary coup, a death-row reckoning to compete with Truman Capote or Norman Mailer.

The initial face-to-face conversation has the feel of a first date — the characters recognize the dynamic as such as well — as they feint and dodge and test each other's boundaries and dedication. White uses that as the baseline to establish an erotic tension underlying everything else, most obviously in the aging queer writer appreciating Harrison's similarities to his long lost youthful lover — but that energy spreads and disperses in different ways than might be expected. Meanwhile, as the meetings continue, the conversants become closer while also rubbing up against the very great differences in their worldview. Although they share a mistrust over "big government", James is ultimately more of a "blue blooded patriot" than a red blooded one and blanches at Harrison's willingness to slaughter innocents in the pursuit of an abstract ideal.

The play is staged simply but effectively to convey the shifting power dynamics and emotional tone. An open frame separates the two men, representing the window in the prison's interview room, and at the outset Harrison is behind the window, locked away, while James (though shuffling around with the help of a crutch and sitting in a wheelchair) is free and unbounded. The middle portion sees that set shifted ninety degrees, as if the characters were on a more even footing. And at the end, as they are laid bare to each other, they stand side-by-side, each facing the audience, completely open and vulnerable.2

That arc, as the characters move from feeling each other out to willingly revealing themselves, gives the play its strength, and more than an examination of the political issues rippling across its surface it's about the intimacy of confession. If, as James contends, each human being is a story, then the desire to have someone know the truth of that story is a profound human need. And thus, the play leaves a solid emotional impact.

It's also generally well-acted, though Terrence Bryant, as James, has a most unadmirable line to walk. Gore Vidal had such a vivid persona and mannerisms (the memories of which were probably re-ignited all the more with his passing) that any portrayal is going to flirt with mere impersonation. Bryant probably goes the best route here, embodying that persona without getting caught up too much in Vidal's aristocratic cadence and dialect. Todd Michael Sandomirsky has an opposite dilemma — perpetrators of great crimes are often treated as a palimpsest on which society's grave ills are sketched, overpowering any sense of the individual as a unique moral agent. America wanted to see McVeigh as someone insane, paranoid or utterly irrational, but here Sandomirsky presents the honourable soldier at the centre of a whirling vortex, unfrightened and unbowed.

There's enough going on here that one need not trot out the easy existential clichés of how we're all on death row; it's the connections between the living that fascinate the most.

1 Vidal's essay for Vanity Fair recounting his relationship with McVeigh is online here and is arguably essential reading for anyone interested in this play.

2 A., who had come to the show with me and was quite moved by it, commented of that last staging, "at the end, it felt like I was the one behind the glass."

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