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Theater Review: Terre Haute in Los Angeles

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In the final period of his life, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had at least one very prominent ally--and pen pal. Celebrated author and political gadfly Gore Vidal, intrigued by McVeigh's defiant opposition to the federal government, corresponded with the death row prisoner during the three years before he was executed in a maximum security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Afterwards, Vidal wrote an article for Vanity Fair entitled "The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh," sympathizing in part with his subject's motivations and expanding the scope of blame for the bombing itself to encompass the FBI, the ATF and various other arms of the national apparatus.

Novelist Edmund White's first published play, Terre Haute, lightly fictionalizes the epistolary exchange between Vidal and McVeigh and reframes their communications as a series of four face-to-face meetings across prison glass during the week just before McVeigh received his ultimate punishment. Renaming Vidal "James" and McVeigh "Harrison," White largely sticks to the known historical record in the characters' accounts of events. The characters themselves, though, are the playwright's own imaginative riffs on the originals.

Harrison wants James to write his life story and to tell the world why he blew up the federal building, so he tells him everything. James's reasons for coming to see Harrison are a bit more clouded. To be sure, he shares Harrison's revulsion at the government's 1993 attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and other instances of America's post-Cold War imperial overreach at home and abroad. At the same time, though, his fascination with the young man's ideological purity is laced with a hardly concealed physical attraction to him, as well. (Vidal really hates this play, by the way.)

The Blank Theatre Company gives Terre Haute as good a production as it's ever likely to get, with sterling performances from Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H) and Jim Parrack (True Blood). Parrack's Timothy McVeigh is something of a noble brute--unrepentant, certain of his own heroism, and articulate in espousing his worldview while still painfully aware of that worldview's limitations. But it's Farrell who really carries the play as a crusty, old radical patrician with a desperate need to evade the trappings of his advanced years. Somehow even the clunkiest of dialogue ("Like most autodidacts, Harrison, you never know which are the good books") is harmlessly subsumed into Farrell's perfectly paced, subtly smoldering performance. We'd really like to see both of these actors on stage again in something else.

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Terre Haute runs Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 and Sunday afternoons at 2, through November 14, at The Blank Theatre in Hollywood. Tickets are $35 and $30 on ovationtix, $19.50 on goldstar, and $19 and $17 on lastagetix.