“Terre Haute” in ACT’s Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space Presented by Bridges Stage Company

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Robert Bergin as Harrison and Norman Newkirk as James.
Photo by Ian Johnson

The catastrophic consequences of patriotism gone wrong! That’s what “Terra Haute” is all about. Powerfully written by Edmund White and well directed by Aaron Levin, this two-person play will leave you a little dazed and probably a lot troubled

It’s a fictionalized account of the relationship between Timothy McVeigh (here Harrison) and Gore Vidal (here James). McVeigh corresponded for three years with Vidal while in Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary awaiting execution. The two never met. Vidal destroyed their letters, but did write a 2001 article for “Vanity Fair.” There he suggested that McVeigh’s heinous destruction of the Murrah Federal Building and the accompanying deaths of 157 people and wounding of more than 500 was a response to McVeigh’s belief that our government was murdering its own people and eroding the liberties guaranteed in our Bill of Rights (think about the Waco incident). This was not the act of a crazed mad man, Vidal averred. It was a political statement.

Mr. White has imagined a series of meetings at the penitentiary between the two in the last week of McVeigh’s life. The writer character is a sophisticated, well-dressed, older member of the upper class. the prisoner in an orange jump suit who enters in shackles each time he meets with the writer is a highly intelligent member of the lower class. Their conversations explore many issues about which they share concern and that are still troubling in our country today.

It is played without an intermission, on a stage that approximates what I think a penitentiary’s visitor’s rooms might look like—ever present guards, an observation catwalk above, inch thick see-through partition separating guest from prisoner, bleak grey and white cinder block walls, thick locked doors. Sobering prison noises reinforce the visual effect.

And visit after visit, McVeigh, a former Gulf War soldier trained by ours government to “excel at killing people,” tells why he believes ours government has become immoral. He quotes Jefferson, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

The acting is superb. Robert Bergin as the McVeigh character is a master at the subtle gesture and facial expression. Yet he can be frighteningly explosive too. Norman Newkirk embodies the patrician. Mr. Elegance personified, but a man struggling with his own mortality and existence.

Democracy is fragile, threatened by self-serving or ignorant politicians, an ill-informed public, lunatics, big money and misguided decisions. This play and production are a timely reminder.

Through June 15 at Act Theatre’s Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

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