Edmund White’s play “Terre Haute Indiana,” presented in its Chicago premiere by Black Elephant, centers on a federal prisoner named Harrison (Cole Simon), as he awaits execution for destroying a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Since the historical details of his crime and biography are fictionalized not a jot, it’s a distracting decision to change Timothy McVeigh’s name. Perhaps the decision was made because the play’s story of his face-to-face encounter with left wing American expatriate writer Gore Vidal is fictional. In real life, the two were correspondents but never met. The Vidal analogue here, James, is played by Danne Taylor. Vidal and McVeigh shared a paranoid anti-government radicalism. That radicalism drove McVeigh to mass murder and Vidal praised him for it.
The fictional James is a bit less sanguine than Vidal but still strangely admiring, and also sexually infatuated.
The terrorist shows no repentance for the deaths he caused, which he saw as collateral damage. The play does dwell on his angst about the children who were part of the death toll, which is a baffling sentimentalization. It suggests juvenile life is sacred but some middle aged lady who does data entry in an IRS office deserves death.
Both actors do great work in crafting this peculiar relationship. Simon is tremendously affecting in his complex portrayal of a mass murderer. As a piece of drama, this play works.
But is that enough? At what point does a dramatist’s love of complexity and ambiguity, his need to tall all sides of a story, degenerate into a morass of simple moral confusion? Must the definition of a liberal be as the old joke says, a man so open minded he won’t take his own side in a quarrel?
In our quest for sophistication have we lost the ability to call a monster by his true name?