Breaking Down Walls

A liberal intellectual and a right-winger on Death Row discover they have much in common

One of the most uncomfortable tasks I ever undertook during my first journalism job as the editorial assistant in the New York office of British newspaper The Daily Telegraph was fielding phone calls from death row inmate Kenny Richey. Richey, who was sentenced to death in Ohio in 1987 for the murder of 2-year-old Cynthia Collins, would call our office collect every few weeks for a chat. The bureau chief was usually too busy to speak to Richey himself, but because he wanted to keep up with the Scottish prisoner's story for journalistic purposes, my boss encouraged me to make conversation with him.

I dreaded his calls. It wasn't Richey's crime that bothered me. Given the lack of forensic evidence to support the case against him, I suspected he might have been falsely accused anyway. What unsettled me was the fact that someone locked in a cell for murder so many miles away from the airy Manhattan building where I would sit five days a week drinking Dean & Deluca hot chocolate and reading the Post could be so keen to hear about the paltry details of my squeaky little life. "What are you wearing today?" he would ask flirtatiously in his broad Edinburgh brogue. "What are you doing after work? Go on, take me along!" Richey's day-to-day existence was (and still is) entirely different to my own. Yet our lopsided attempts at chitchat made the prison walls that separated us feel alarmingly insubstantial.

The barrier dividing Richey and me seems roughly as porous as the one separating the two characters in Edmund White's play Terre Haute. "It's sort of like a first date," observes the young death row inmate Harrison during his first visit from ageing intellectual, James, near the start of White's drama. One of several titillating lines that toy with the edges of White's otherwise intractable text, Harrison's words knock a hole through the wall separating him from James, who comes to talk to the prisoner during his last few days on death row. The idea of a romantic connection developing between the arthritic septuagenarian and the cage-pacing Army cadet seems ridiculously far-fetched. But by hinting at the possibility, White probes the porous nature of the divide between prisoners and the world outside. Physical barriers might stand between the innocent and the accused, but like "ink being dumped in water," as Harrison says, the two cannot always be easily distinguished from one another.

Elias Escobedo (left) and John Hutchinson star in Terre Haute.
Lois Tema
Elias Escobedo (left) and John Hutchinson star in Terre Haute.

Receiving its American premiere in a production directed by Christopher Jenkins at New Conservatory Theatre Center, Terre Haute is White's account of a series of imaginary meetings between writer Gore Vidal ("James") and Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh ("Harrison"). The play unfolds in the four days leading up to the prisoner's execution at Terre Haute penitentiary in Indiana for his role in the deaths of 168 people through the destruction of a federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. McVeigh and Vidal never met in person in real life. But the prisoner wrote to the author, having been impressed by a conspiratorial article Vidal penned for Vanity Fair in November 1998 on the theme of government malfeasance, and the two men soon entered into a correspondence. McVeigh invited only five people to witness his execution on June 11, 2001. Vidal, though unable to attend, was on the guest list.

At one level, it's possible to dismiss Terre Haute as the product of an ageing queen's festive imagination. Lacking any strong evidence upon which to base a real-life narrative, White (who is best known for his autobiographical novel A Boy's Own Story, describing a gay man's youth) creates a prison fantasy tinged with homoerotic overtones. With the character of James, the playwright gives us an impeccably turned-out, wealthy American expat living in Paris. James is as proud of his role as "gadfly of the nation" as he is of his no-nonsense approach to sex (he swings both ways, he likes it before dinner, and he's not afraid to pay for it, either). The handsome right-wing revolutionary Harrison, meanwhile, looks great in a prison jumpsuit, and looks even better with it unzipped to the waist in his final scene.

Perhaps projecting his own peccadilloes onto his play, White manages to create a much more nuanced character out of James (a white-haired, non-heterosexual intellectual just like the author) than Harrison (a white-haired, non-heterosexual intellectual's wet dream). As embodied by John Hutchinson in NCTC's tightly crafted production, James offsets a piquantly agile brain with a slow-lumbering frame. Flashing his interview technique around like Zorro might wield his sword, he's perfectly in control and yet manages to reveal some of the character's inner vulnerability. Elias Escobedo, meanwhile, has a harder time with Harrison. Channeling Emilio Estevez circa Repo Man, Escobedo's troubled, boyish approach to the part isn't so much the problem as the part itself. White equips the character with only two settings — smoldering and seething. There isn't much the actor can do besides stalk around his cell like a caged animal or hunch on his chair like a disgraced child.

Yet despite the vast contrasts between the two characters and the fact that the old man ends up being the more vivid of the pair, White connects Harrison and James in fascinating ways. Both enjoy being controversial. Both bristle with contempt for the feds. And, if you consider the fact that James is arthritic and over 70, both could be said to be on "death row." As suggested by the transparent walls of the cell at the center of scenic designer Bruce Walters' boxy, institutional set, the two men are practically close enough to touch. And yet they cannot.

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