Opening Nights: Terre Haute

Terre Haute

ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, $15–$25. Runs Thurs.–Sat., plus Sun. & Mon. Ends June 15.

The most important item onstage in the Bridges Stage Company’s debut production is an inch-thick pane of glass that separates its two main players.

Situated in the interview room of the United States Penitentiary in the titular town, the two men have plenty separating them already in Edmund White’s 2006 drama. Prisoner Harrison (Robert Bergin) is a young, self-educated “redneck” who served in the first Gulf War. Interviewer James (Norman Newkirk) is an aging intellectual blue-blood expat who lives in Paris. Yet they do have a commonality: Both believe the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction. Harrison expressed his displeasure with “fascist federal fucking bullshit” by bombing a government building, while James seeks to protect “the American republic from American empire” by penning lengthy didactic essays, one of which caught the attention of Harrison. This leads first to an exchange of letters and eventually to the interview we’re watching.

These characters are obvious stand-ins for two very real historical figures: the mass murderer Timothy McVeigh and the intellectual Gore Vidal. Terre Haute is an imaginative exercise by White, who was intrigued by the fact that McVeigh had invited Vidal to his 2001 execution after reading the latter’s Vanity Fair essay “The War at Home,” which railed against the erosion of the Bill of Rights. Vidal stayed away, but White brought their surrogates together in his only play. (The prolific writer is best known for The Joy of Gay Sex and novels including A Boy’s Own Story.)

And yet White could only bring them so close. The pane of glass remains, splitting a striking, perfectly sterile set by Rick Araluce. This barrier allows each character to look closely into the other’s eyes, yet it keeps them far enough away to protect themselves—and, conversely, to expose themselves without fear.

Directed by Aaron Levin in an intermissionless 90 minutes, this is an uneven play, which sometimes devolves into a pissing match between two cranks spouting off theories about Western decline. But in its most intimate moments—where the characters are exploring their rage, their regret, and their sexuality—Terre Haute makes good on the promise of the set. Then we get insight into the minds of two idiosyncratic characters, and some moving performances. Newkirk is particularly good as the patrician James is slowly unpeeled by Harrison, revealing the vulnerability beneath his learned mannerisms and the humanity that, at its core, this still Tea Party–topical play is actually all about.

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