Actors portraying Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal in Terre Haute. Photo by Laura Johnston.

Theatrical Impression: Terre Haute by Bridges Stage Company at ACT Theatre

June 3, 2014

Promotional photo for Terre Haute by Bridges Stage Company at ACT. Photo by Laura Johnston.

Terre Haute is not my type of play. Two men sitting in a room just talking can intrigue me from time to time, but for me it works if there is banter, humor, and familiarity.  In Terre Haute–the fictional meeting between Gore Vidal and Timothy McVeigh in the days before McVeigh’s execution–a familiarity grows between the two men that left me not knowing how to feel about the subject matter and the play itself. We can never know anything for sure, hence the effectiveness of terrorism, but I left the theatre sure that whatever my issues with the subject matter of the play, it was well-produced.

I think I was around 8 when McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. I don’t remember much about it, except that my classmates and I were taught what to do in the event of a bomb scare. Crouching down under our desks became included in our repertoire along with filing quietly single file into the windowless hallways in the event of a tornado. But being in southern Missouri, we were close to the events. I’m sure I knew people who were connected in some way, but growing up, I never knew the reasons behind McVeigh’s terrorism. As I came of age, there was the Columbine School shooting, September 11th 2001, and I just didn’t focus on the reasons why.

So Terre Haute was enlightening to say the least. Edmund White, the playwright, only changes the names of the characters from the people he based the play on. The location, the details of McVeigh’s bomb, all of it is pulled directly from true events, but the names are changed. I can guess as to why, and know that it didn’t matter, because we all knew whose story we were watching.

Well, at first the story was clear to me. As the play progressed, it became more about the attraction of the older man to the younger, and during the talkback following, I came up with a possible reason why. The playwright wrote the play for a young man he had a crush on, who happened to look like Timothy McVeigh. The piece apparently was a vehicle for this look-alike performer to act. While I don’t doubt there could have been a taboo physical/mental/sensual/emotional attraction between the two men had they ever met in real life, letting it become the focal point of the play made me wonder why choose the backdrop of such a real and powerful event?

I suppose there are arguments for and against: use the true events of the Oklahoma City bombing and audiences have something to grasp onto and comprehend the relationship against. Create other events and the events become circumspect and put under scrutiny, instead of maintaining focus on the exchange between the two men.

Regardless, the final image of the play–the one Robert Bergin said made him want to perform the role–fell flat for me. The talkback that followed only served to frustrate me as the topic strayed from what could have been effective discussion (common for talkbacks) and it turned into a lot of speculation. What if there had been no daycare center at the federal building? Would McVeigh have been considered a revolutionary hero, taking a stand against his government?

I abhor murder and terror and war and the military and guns vehemently, so I would argue “no, not in the slightest, he still murdered hundreds of innocent people” but perhaps you have a different opinion. Seeing this play will make you think. You may think about what is terror, will we ever know the consequences of our government’s actions, where you may have been when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

If that intrigues you, go. Terre Haute runs until June 15 with the Central Heating Lab at ACT Theatre, produced by Bridges Stage Company.

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