Geoffrey Rush, Emily Barclay, Shane Jacobson

Making a rare incursion onto the legit stage, gay-lit icon and lauded nonfiction author Edmund White has penned a surprisingly straightforward two-hander in "Terre Haute." Putting an imaginative spin on the actual interview sessions between Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal, the uneven but compelling drama is well served by Christopher Jenkins' U.S. premiere staging.

Making a rare incursion onto the legit stage, gay-lit icon and lauded nonfiction author Edmund White has penned a surprisingly straightforward two-hander in “Terre Haute.” Putting an imaginative spin on the actual interview sessions between Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal (both given pseudonyms here), the uneven but compelling drama is well served by Christopher Jenkins’ U.S. premiere staging. Hot-button themes and modest production demands should make this script highly attractive to companies seeking attention-getting material.

While the Vidal figure (played by John Hutchinson, who bears a considerable physical resemblance) is dubbed James and McVeigh is called Harrison (Elias Escobedo), there’s otherwise scant effort made to disguise the protagonists’ real-life models. From details of the Oklahoma City bombing to the author-interviewer’s confession that “my one true intimacy” was with a close friend who died in WWII (as noted in Vidal’s own memoirs), the play is at least as interested in using facts as it is fictive license to probe the personalities at hand.

Granted 20-minute interview sessions at an Indiana maximum security prison just days before his subject’s execution, James is a celebrated expat writer flown in from his longtime Paris home. He’s already corresponded with Harrison, who discovered in his lockup reading that they shared certain highly critical views of the U.S. government and its recent “shredding” of the Bill of Rights, particularly regarding 1993’s catastrophic FBI Waco siege that resulted in the deaths of 81 Branch Davidians.

Of course, James has only wielded his pen in protest. Six years prior to their meeting, Harrison felt compelled to blow up a government building, killing 168 people (including 19 daycare toddlers) and injuring 509.

Decorated Gulf War U.S. Army vet Harrison views his illustrious visitor as a vehicle for “getting my message out,” feeling his act’s intended political statement was ignored amid its universal vilification. He doesn’t see himself as any ordinary “mass murderer,” let alone the kind of common criminal “loser” James’ contemporaries Truman Capote and Norman Mailer famously befriended and wrote about. Facing “state-assisted suicide,” he wants one last chance to let citizens know he was “defending their freedom.”

Admitting in occasional direct audience address that he enjoys playing good cop/bad cop with interviewees, James is by turns condescending, sympathetic, excoriating, even flirtatious toward his still-youthful subject. Humorless, defensive Harrison paces nervously behind a suggested plastic security wall in Bruce Walters’ neatly antiseptic institutional set.

So aristocratic in manner that the formally undereducated Harrison says he recalls “Sebastian Cabot on TV,” James seems constitutionally incapable of being intimidated. Yet the prisoner’s misguided, unrepentant rage gets under his skin.

Their four sessions reach emotional climax in the third, when Harrison realizes they’re not on the same page after all, despite some shared political views. He considers those he killed as mere “collateral damage,” necessitated by his acting on “principle.” James insists nothing is more sacred than life itself — and its deliberate destruction can never be excused by rhetoric. Harrison has a scary meltdown, screaming that James is just “one more Socialist-wannabe slave” buying into “this sentimental horseshit about the lives I took.”

Yet they meet one more time, on the execution’s eve — in a quieter scene that would be more effective minus a highlighted moment of quasi-physical intimacy.

The issues floated within “Terre Haute” are so weighty that emphasizing rough-trade homoeroticism at a key point seems a tad silly. Would a play about Aileen Wuornos benefit from having her flash breasts just before lethal injection? Unlike Vidal (who has always resisted being pigeonholed as “gay,” viewing all sexuality as fluid), similarly prolific and versatile man-of-letters White is a proud “gay writer.” But the inclusion of sexual frisson here feels forced and gratuitous.

Though he seemed a bit line-hesitant on opening night, Hutchinson beautifully captures the elder-statesman arrogance, wit, intellectual ferocity and blunt forthcomingness (it makes sense when he abruptly asks Harrison, “Do you think I’m pathetic?”) of complex, brilliant Vidal himself. Escobedo offers a credibly pale, coiled, obsessive Harrison whose outbursts are frightening, yet who also commands a certain pathos.

Terre Haute

New Conservatory Theater Center, San Francisco; 60 seats; $34 top

Production

SAN FRANCISCO A New Conservatory Theater Center presentation of a play in one act by Edmund White. Directed by Christopher Jenkins.

Creative

Set, Bruce Walters; costumes, Prem Lathi; lighting, John Kelly; sound, Brian Morse; production stage manager, Lia Metz. Opened, reviewed April 6, 2007. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

James - John Hutchinson Harrison - Elias Escobedo
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