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The Sunset Limited

a Georgia Premiere
by Cormac McCarthy

COMPANY : Theatrical Outfit [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Balzer Theatre @ Herren's [WEBSITE]
ID# 3682

SHOWING : March 20, 2010 - April 11, 2010



A startling encounter on a New York subway platform leads two strangers to a dilapidated tenement where a life or death decision begs the existential question: is there light at the end of the tunnel? In a split-second intervention, the character Black (E. Roger Mitchell), a Christian ex-con, prevents the character White (Peter Thomasson), a nihilistic and world-weary professor, from hurtling himself in the path of an oncoming train which sparks an intriguing, philosophical conversation. Published in 2006 and first performed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, The Sunset Limited has been praised as “deft, spare, and full of artful tension,” and contains the brilliant, often darkly humorous, dialogue for which McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) is celebrated.

Director Jessica Phelps West
set and costume designer Isabel curley-clay
set and costume design Moriah curley-clay
Black E. Roger Mitchell
White Peter Thomasson
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Smoke and Mirrors
by uppermiddlebrow
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Let me say at once that the sustained acting in ‘Sunset’ deserves a full five stars. Peter Thomasson’s riffs on injured pride and defensiveness are always a pleasure to watch and they suit the character of White down to the ground. E. Roger Mitchell is enormously likable and deftly expresses the intelligence of Black’s uneducated man. The actors manage to vary the tone, intensity and pace of their 100 minute argument so that the time we spend listening to them never hangs heavy. This is an acting tour de force.

Cormac McCarthy’s play, on the other hand, is a trickier matter. It provides satisfying drama but only the pretense of debate. It’s like watching a wrestling match that you know is rigged.

I remember in my early teens being challenged on my unbelief by an idealistic Christian classmate. Like White in this play, I had no desire to undermine my interlocutor’s faith nor to proselytize for atheism, merely not to be pestered for too long by an evangelizer. As I soon saw, arguments about faith boil down ultimately to “You have it and I haven’t.” Reasoning, such as appeals to the authority of the bible and to miracles, is circular. If I don’t accept the bible as revealed truth and don’t believe accounts of miracles, they don’t bolster the case for Christianity. While McCarthy lets White make this point towards the end of The Sunset Limited, it could have been uttered at the start, except then there would have been no play.

I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in the intervening decades contemplating the moves in this particular game of chess. So it took me a while to catch on that the play is fixed from the get go. Christian Black has miraculously saved Atheist White from throwing himself off the subway platform into the path of an oncoming train. On reflection, it’s a fairly absurd premise. How many determined subway suicides are so intercepted? The physics of it are iffy. But the play rushes us into not questioning this. Since the playwright says it happened, White cannot argue about it on our behalf and is faced with apparent evidence of a miracle performed by an ex-con. Instead, he argues about whether Jesus really speaks to Black, a debate that cannot get past “Yes he does” and “I find that hard to believe.”

Sunset is also fixed in that its atheist is a suicidal loner who hated his parents. There are plenty of atheists who are not suicidal and who love their parents and their children. Some share White’s pessimistic assessment of human nature’s flaws and the world’s fate, but there's no necessary connection. On the other side, Black has been a murdering hoodlum who only belatedly saw the light of God. An extreme version of the Christian idea that everyone’s a sinner does not really balance out the characterization of the atheist. There’s a lot of confusion about whether we are arguing about belief in Jesus or belief that life is worth living, or whether we are dealing with a case of severe clinical depression and / or severe social maladjustment, in which case the arguments are beside the point.

So lots of smoke and mirrors, as befits any attempt to justify the ways of God to man. It’s a fun exercise though, and the actors give it a hell of a workout.
Scent of Darkness
by Dedalus
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Two men, nameless, strangers, sit in a run-down basement apartment, adjacent to a subway track. The rumble of passing trains punctuates their conversation. One of the men is an academic atheist, a man of the mind. The other is a passionate blue-collar Christian, a man for whom faith is the answer, the solution, to any problem. One man has fallen into personal darkness, wishing to take that leap into the path of the oncoming Sunset Limited. The other has risen from the dark mistakes of his youth and lives a life devoted to salvation, drenched in the “scent of divinity” that he is convinced will save everyone.

Subtitled “A Novel in Dramatic Form,” Cormac McCarthy’s piece defies easy classification. Is it an allegory? After all, the characters are called “Black” and “White” based on their race, and the underground subway is a setting fraught with symbolism. Is it a philosophical dialectic? After all, it uses characters as mouthpieces for the author’s ruminations on faith vs atheism, intellect vs passion, darkness vs light. Is it even a play? After all, there is little action, little blocking, little movement. And, keeping with the novels of McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Road”), is it just another excuse for celebrating the darkness of the human spirit? Or, conversely, keeping with Theatrical Outfit’s usual preference (and presumably its audience base), is it another exploration of the redemptive nature of Christianity?

This is not a play that will appeal to everyone, or even to most casual theatre-goers. And, yet, I personally found it emotionally invigorating, intellectually satisfying, and an extraordinary experience from beginning to end. Central to my enjoyment was the acting by Peter Thomasson and E. Roger Mitchell. These two performances succeeded in creating real people who transcended any metaphorical stereotyping. They were, in no way, indicative of their respective races or even philosophical positions. Indeed, one of my least favorite clichés is the canard that atheists are, by definition, gloomy, even suicidal people. Mr. Thomasson here, though, delved so deeply into his character (I’m tempted to ask him what “White’s” real name was – I’m sure Mr. Thomasson knew) that he was representative of no one but himself. Mr. Mitchell, too, transcended the usual stereotypes of the “jailhouse evangelist,” convincing me that “Black’s” salvation of this stranger would, in fact, validate his own God-salvation. These are two of the finest performances of the year.

Director Jessica Phelps West is to be commended for orchestrating a harmony of design and performance that drew me into this conversation and kept me enthralled until the end. I didn’t even notice the characters remained rooted in their chairs until well over the 30-minute mark. It’s a daring choice to limit movement to this extent, and it fully paid off by giving significance to the movements made (as well as heightening the sense of entrapment that dominates “White’s” life).

On a design level, the dingy set (by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay) with its every-subway exterior, paradoxically raised so we can sense unending depths below, was realistically lit (by Christopher Kettrey), and brought to life by the crisscrossing train sounds of designer Jonathan Summers. Cynically, I’ve become used to brilliant technical achievements in this venue, so it’s still a pleasure when I’m surprised by the level of invention and creation, by the thorough construction of a theatrical space that I found here.

But, this is, first and last, a singular achievement by writer Cormac McCarthy. Essentially a long conversation between strangers, the play’s dialogue throbs and whistles with imagery and passion, eliciting smiles, even laughs, in the midst of grim ruminations. These characters are given phrase and syntax that define them completely, that frame McCarthy’s argument in terms of real people with a broad spectrum of reaction and emotion. Constructed like a debate, the first half gives “Black” his moment, his plea, his argument. Mr. Mitchell forcefully makes the position for faith, for letting the “scent of divinity” cover-up the essential darknesses we all experience. The second half gives us “White’s” rebuttal, and it is forceful and persuasive. I like how it never gives us the specifics of that darkness (fictional suicides always fail when some simple bull-hooey “reason” is introduced), how it just shows us a man overwhelmed and under-prepared for the inhumanity he sees in the world, or, more precisely, the inhumanity he FEELS from the world. That “Black’s” selfless devotion to the dregs of the city’s underbelly almost convinces him otherwise is a testament to McCarthy’s theme of personal response to confrontations with chaos. More to the point, even though “White’s” response is suicidal release, I never got the impression that was McCarthy’s statement about atheism or intellectualism, but that it was this character’s best (only) choice.

Come to “The Sunset Limited” and have your paradigms challenged, your emotions played, and your intellect exercised. It is a singular achievement in acting, in design, in concept. It is, indeed, a play to be experienced.

-- Brad Rudy (



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