Meeting acute

Pub date April 18, 2007
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionTheater

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REVIEW In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, one of the only voices raised on behalf of understanding Timothy McVeigh — that is, as someone slightly more complicated than a Hollywood-style incarnation of pure evil — was that of Gore Vidal. Vidal insisted on pointing to the obvious: the bombing of offices that included the local headquarters of the FBI and the ATF — although utterly cruel and misguided in leading to 168 deaths — was not arbitrary wickedness but a carefully considered act of revenge. As Vidal put it in his article on McVeigh for Vanity Fair, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City "was the greatest massacre of Americans by an American since two years earlier, when the federal government decided to take out the compound of a Seventh-Day Adventist cult near Waco, Texas."

McVeigh — a decorated military hero of the Gulf War, as it turned out — had counterattacked a government he claimed was waging war against the American people. In this opinion, McVeigh, who insisted he had no accomplices, was not alone. He represented a growing libertarian movement afoot in the American heartland. Moreover, as Vidal, a critic from the left of federal tyranny, pointed out in a 1998 piece for Vanity Fair, "Shredding the Bill of Rights," the government had violated Posse Comitatus in laying its siege of the Branch Davidians.

For Vidal’s attention to the matter, McVeigh began a correspondence with him, even inviting the writer to attend his execution — an invitation Vidal declined. This immediately sounds like a fascinating, even dramatic dialogue. But stageworthy? Edmund White’s two-hander, Terre Haute, shrewdly ups the ante a bit, imagining an actual date between Vidal and McVeigh — respectively cast as the lightly fictionalized writer James Brevoord (a fine John Hutchinson) and the transparently McVeigh-like terrorist Harrison (a fiercely magnetic Elias Escobedo, who even bears a strong physical resemblance to the original). They encounter each other in the flesh in a series of brief meetings across a plastic security screen in the maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Ind., during the days preceding Harrison’s execution.

On death row Harrison has had time to think over his actions. Neighbor Ted Kaczynski, we learn, has suggested he would have done better to blow the building up at night, when it was empty of innocents. But Harrison remains unrepentant, even if we see the burden of responsibility close over him when the lives of innocent "collaterals," particularly the children at the day care center, get mentioned. Brevoord — who is there to write on the meaning of Harrison’s act and to boldly ask the whys so studiously erased in the media — sympathizes with Harrison’s anti-imperialism while provoking the younger man with mounting scorn for his embrace of feeble right-wing conspiracy theories.

Besides a political tête-à-tête, the meeting is the occasion for a clash of personalities, temperaments, and backgrounds, all of which White brings out starkly in the dialogue: Brevoord, for instance, is the kind of man who has no trouble using kerfuffle in an idle sentence, although an indeed is more than enough to throw Harrison for a loop. The tension here is often lightly comical, but the point about education, intellect, and political opposition (and the art of the interviewer) is well made. And if the script feels overly expositional at times, the actors offer strong and credible performances throughout.

The New Conservatory Theatre Center’s US premiere is a sharp and intimate production, staged by director Christopher Jenkins with intelligent assurance, including a concentration on character that garners moments of alternately subtle and electric intensity between two men negotiating an extraordinary situation. Yet the director can’t resist kitschy flourishes, introducing the McVeigh character, for instance, with a short piercing scream of sound and a light that illuminates Harrison standing like Hannibal Lecter behind the see-through wall of the visiting cell. Scenic designer Bruce Walters’s visiting room, meanwhile, is a simple but convincingly dire arrangement of wire-woven Plexiglas walls, yellow-taped borders, and blinking security cameras.

White draws the facts of the case, as well as the style and argument from Vidal’s relevant essays, into well-crafted if sometimes information-laden dialogue. It can be too clashing and unnecessarily confrontational, but it is generally graceful and filled with absorbing ideas, especially in the monologues given to the Vidal character. Unfortunately, the play gets distracted from the meat of its story. That tale not only sports an intriguing tension between two very different sorts of rebels but is politically urgent and deep, ranging from the correct response to a truly totalitarian encroachment on fundamental liberties to the dissolving relation between cause and effect in a culture dominated by mind-numbingly interchangeable images of good and evil.

Instead, the play ends up veering off into carnal considerations of repressed desires, a layer to the characters’ relationship that was probably best left hinted at. The best you might say about it is that it further humanizes a figure too quickly passed off as a cartoon rather than a riddle that needs solving. But in practice it tends to trivialize what’s gone before, inevitably mixing an unhelpful pinch of Freud into the media-repressed why of a terrible public act. *


Through May 6

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; $22–$40

New Conservatory Theatre Center

25 Van Ness, SF

(415) 861-8972