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Terre Haute by Edmund White

Time is not on their side. So much to tell, so much at stake, and yet so little time! One man has a story to tell, and the other a story to write.

"[There is the loud sound of a buzzer.]

HARRISON: That’s it – time’s up. They just give us twenty minutes, though sometimes the guard goes off for a coffee break and forgets. I guess they don’t want us to work up an escape plan – or get to like each other."

Edmund White fashions his powerful two-hander on the famed Gore Vidal/Timothy McVeigh correspondence. He fictionalizes the characters, imagining what possibly would have transpired had the two men met in person at the high-security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

At the peak of his successful and controversial writing career, James interviews Harrison, an all-American-type terrorist incarcerated on “death row” with only days before his execution – or as Harrison (and McVeigh) termed “his government-assisted suicide.”

TERRE HAUTE is an intriguing play of debate and seduction – but who is seducing whom? James strikes a bargain with Harrison: “I’ll defend you in print if you give me the story of how you blew up the Murrah Building.” However, in the telling of that story, there rages a cagey cat- and-mouse game of one-upmanship. The explosive battle of wits, emotions and even sexuality is deterred from physical violence only by the protective plastic partition separating them and a guard within “earshot”. No weapons are allowed; but both men with their axes-to-grind and their persuasive charismas are weapons enough for immediate destruction.

[The buzzer sounds.]

Since time does not allow it, the play demands relentless verbal violence without an intermission. The dialogue is as directly taut and “covertly revealing” as are the characters and their unique situation. Both the playwright and the characters are racing against time.

[Again the buzzer sounds.]

The play has dynamic two-character scenes and riveting monologues which are highly charged by James’s persistent probing and Harrison’s retelling of the “Gulf War”, the FBI’s involvement in the Waco Davidian disaster, his own military training and painful rejection by the Green Berets – events which all propelled Harrison to commit the massacre in Oklahoma City – America’s home-grown terrorist attack.

[The final sound of the buzzer.]

Time has run out.

HARRISON: Goodbye.

JAMES: Thank you.

[HARRISON exits. He doesn’t look back but marches out with military correctness.]

JAMES: (confessing) That was maybe the most extraordinary moment in my life.

TERRE HAUTE: A play about the incident that we cannot and must not forget!

Review by W. Martin

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