Theater Review: ‘Terre Haute’

January 30, 2009 Updated: January 30, 2009

PRISONER AND JOURNALIST: (L-R) Nick Westrate and Peter Eyre in Edmund White's 'Terre Haute.'  (Valentina Medda)
PRISONER AND JOURNALIST: (L-R) Nick Westrate and Peter Eyre in Edmund White's 'Terre Haute.' (Valentina Medda)
NEW YORK—The need to understand lies at the heart of Edmund White's intense, unsettling, and yet not-quite-fulfilling drama, Terre Haute.

In a maximum security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, expatriate and left-leaning, James Brevoort (Peter Eyre), has come to interview Harrison (Nick Westrate), a twenty-something man who has been sentenced to die in a few days for his bombing of a building in Oklahoma, which resulted in the deaths of 168 men, women, and children. (Author White used the actions of bomber Timothy McVeigh as a starting point for his story.)

As a result of Harrison's reading some of Brevoort's articles and essays, the two began a correspondence, leading to Brevoort coming to Terre Haute for an exclusive death row interview, where he hopes to find out what exactly drove Harrison to commit this terrible act—a crime Harrison has readily admitted committing.

However, as Brevoort quickly finds out, things don't go as planned ("you're not as self-centered as the usual killer," he comments to Harrison at one point). Indeed, Harrison is in no hurry to talk about the crime, instead trying to get a sense of Brevoort and why he is really here. Brevoort, who has received great criticism from the public and the press for defending and attempting to explain away Harrison's actions, is flummoxed to say the least. Soon the question becomes just who is doing the interviewing and to what end.

Perhaps most intriguing is Harrison's background. He served in the first Gulf War, has no racist or sexists tendencies (or so he says) and only wore a T-shirt saying "White Power" because he was sick of seeing T-Shirts saying "Black Power," which he sees as its own form of racism. More importantly, he has no remorse for his actions, frustrating "normal" people who want to pigeonhole him in one sort of category or another.

INTENSE DRAMA: Peter Eyre as a journalist trying to get to the heart of a story, in 'Terre Haute.'  (Valentina Medda)
INTENSE DRAMA: Peter Eyre as a journalist trying to get to the heart of a story, in 'Terre Haute.' (Valentina Medda)

Indeed, Harrison is more concerned that his message be heard than what people think of him personally. As the two men dance around the white elephant in the room (the reason behind Harrison's actions), White ratchets up the tension as questions of intelligence, politics, not to mention conspiracy theories, and governmental misuse of power are bandied about as both men try to claim the moral high ground.

The story and questions raised are quite provocative, and while one certainly doesn't have to agree with one side or the other (indeed, most will probably find themselves falling somewhere in the middle), the point White seems to be making is the importance of discussing such topics and their effects on the world at large—though the story might be a bit more interesting if Harrison was an accused killer awaiting trial, rather than execution, the later choice taking some of the suspense out of the tale.

However, a major problem with the work is that at no time does it ever allow the audience to get inside the character's heads other than in the most superficial way. Harrison's background, his relationship with some of his family and the process of his committing "the event," as he calls it, is all laid out, but there is never a real feeling of who this man is. (It may have been White's intention to present Harrison as sort of cipher, but it doesn't translate well to the stage.)

The character of James is even more annoying, offering a stereotypical intellectual liberal, seeing things in only one way and mindset. The two eventually reach a grudging respect for one another but without a chance to really get to know these people, the emotional impact of the play is severely blunted, feeling more like a documentary or case lesson than a theatrical work. (There are also several scenes used to titillate, rather than explore the characters, and as a result, feel rather unnecessary.) Eyre and Westrate work well enough in the roles, but unfortunately both end up being pretty much one-dimensional.

Despite the character shortcomings, the basic tension in the story and the verbal jousting between the characters are nicely handled in the text, as well in George Perrin's direction. Hannah Clark's design of the show, (a walled off area for Harrison, two chairs and a few props), brilliantly sets a foreboding tone, even before the show starts-the "caged area" reminding one of a bullet-proof enclosure. Clark's costumes and the lighting design by Matthew Eagland also work well.

Terre Haute tackles an interesting subject and offers some intriguing answers to tough questions (especially ones the characters don't always want to hear) but without being able to present a clearer picture of what makes the two men in the story tick, the result is more disjointed than it should be.

Terre Haute
Presented by Nabokov and Karl Sydow
59e59 Theatres
59 East 59th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or  
Closes: Feb. 15
Running Time: approximately 80 minutes