Theatre Lab Makes Impressive Debut: 'The Sunset Limited' by Cormac McCarthy

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Theatre Lab made a bold choice for their debut production. “The Sunset Limited” is the second play from literary giant, Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “All the Pretty Horses” and “No Country for Old Men.”

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Photo credit: John Lamb

Unlike a traditional play (its subtitle is “A Novel in Dramatic Form”), “Sunset” is driven not by action but by dialogue—deep, meaningful and philosophical dialogue, which in less capable hands could become an intellectual snoozefest. Instead, with skillful acting and direction, McCarthy’s words alternately soothe and cajole, then pop and blister, resulting in an evening of compelling theater.

The play’s single setting is a forlorn, sparsely-furnished apartment; its dreariness emphasized by a bare light bulb illuminating castaway furniture and milk-crate tables. The inhabitants are two unlikely companions, the eponymously named White—a college professor and atheist—and Black, a former convict and evangelical Christian. Prior to the play’s beginning, White hurled himself in front of a train known as the Sunset Limited in an attempt at suicide, but somehow landed in the arms of Black, who believes he was sent by God to save him.

What follows is a philosophical discussion of human suffering, religion and the value of life. Each character reveals intimate, sometimes violent details about their past, offering insight into what has brought them to this desperate tenement. Opposite in more ways than just skin color, Black fully accepts the concept of a single god, complete with judgement, fire, brimstone and salvation. White finds the notion absurd.

As portrayed by Robert A. Mitchell, Black is affable, engaging and easy-going as he glibly bobs and weaves, searching for the weak spot in White’s logic that will allow for his conversion, if not to Christianity, at least to the notion that life is worth living. Zachary Allen Farmer’s White hunkers down into a guarded, introverted ball of nerves, enduring the figurative body blows, repeatedly trying to leave (to attempt suicide again), only to be lured back by Black’s clever arguments and promises. He has to stay, Black tells him, “until you don’t want to leave.”

Black drives the play, controlling its tempo and levels, while White wallows in self-misery, a meek, beaten man who hardly seems like a guy with the guts to throw himself in front of a train. But a pivotal moment comes when White emphatically explains that once you see the world as it truly is—full of pointless absurdity, futility and desperation—that there’s no choice but to kill yourself. He reasons that death via the Sunset Limited will be instantaneous and painless anyway. “At seventy miles an hour, the train is outrunning the neurons,” he says.

The sentiment momentarily stuns Black, and the control begins to shift to White as his simmering, tormented soul begins to bubble to the surface. When that guy finally busts out, it’s impactful and satisfying.

As director, Ryan Foizey, also the founder of Theatre Lab, displays a light hand, drawing strong performances from the actors and nuances from the script. The simple but effective set by Foizey and David Blake is properly atmospheric.

If the train and its tracks are a metaphor for life itself, the message is you can either get on the train, with all its dangerous speed and imperfections, or get crushed by it.

“The Sunset Limited” is at the Gaslight Theater, Thursday, Aug. 15 through Saturday, Aug. 17 at 8pm. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com.

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