Hurry Sundown: The Sunset Limited | Theatre Lab

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This production is a punch to the gut and a challenge to the intellect, as it should be.

 

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A funny thing happened on the way to the train on this day. A middle-aged, college professor had determined to commit suicide by leaping in front of a train, but another man caught him and saved his life. The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy begins shortly after this incident as the two men are in the savior’s apartment, quietly playing Go Fish. As soon as the lights go down, they begin talking up a storm, and cosmic salvation comes in at center stage.

Identified only as White (Zachary Allen Farmer) and Black (Robert Alan Mitchell), the encounter quickly turns into a dialectic about the BIG QUESTIONS; i.e., the existence of God, the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, the meaning of life (or the lack thereof), eternal life for the immortal soul, and all sorts of important but ancillary topics like poverty, music, prison, drugs, books, and mama. That last is one reason White finds the idea of immortality unbearable—the fact that he would have to spend it with his despised (and now deceased) mother.

McCarthy hobbles Black with an inadequate vocabulary to be an equal opponent to White in their verbal sparring, but Black gets in his licks despite that disadvantage. The problem is that he’s brought one book, albeit the “Good Book” with which he is intimately familiar, to a face-off with a man who considers 4,000 books a conservative estimate of his lifetime reading. White says War and Peace (it’s no accident that the title is composed of opposites) is the best book he’s read; for Black, it’s probable that the Bible is the only book he’s read. But in the end, it comes down to what each man believes, and there is where Black picks up a few points because, at least at first, it would appear that his faith is stronger than White’s doubt. Black also gets White to admit that he has never read the Bible in its entirety.

But then White begins to pose questions and posit outcomes that Black can’t address because faith alone is not enough in this situation. White’s life or death decision will ultimately hinge on whether Black can get him to doubt his own convictions that life is all pain and emptiness, that while we are living we are merely “hanging over the abyss” waiting to fall, and that what he considers “easeful death”—extinction—is preferable to waiting out his “life sentence” in a metaphorical prison. Black has done time in an actual penitentiary, or as he calls it, the “jail house,” for murder. While there, he violently attacked another man who knifed him, and while he was recovering from the wound, God came to him for the first time.

As the last line of the Roman Catholic Act of Contrition goes, Black did “amend [his] life.” He now lives in a ratty apartment where he tries to give shelter and comfort to addicts but is realistic enough to know that they will only steal from him, in return, to get another fix. He knows he’s not mending them, but he also believes that being there for them is fulfilling his calling from the God who saved his life and the Christ who saved his soul. He can’t not believe because that choice was taken out of his hands when God chose to speak to his heart.

White keeps trying to leave, but Black wants him to promise he won’t try to kill himself again, and White refuses to do that. Logically, at least, White has the stronger argument. This suicide is no sudden impulse. He has sought treatment for his intractable depression and nothing helps him. He wants to die, and he even has researched the subject to the extent that he knows his chosen method will cause instantaneous and painless oblivion. But he is an academic, so he is willing to engage in this struggle if for no other reason than pedagogy is his life’s work. There are echoes here of Faust, of The Devil and Daniel Webster, and even fluff like Here Comes Mr. Jordan/Heaven Can Wait, but none of these involve a man advocating for the right NOT to be saved against another man’s belief that it is somehow his duty to save him.

Ryan Foizey, a fine young actor/director who is relatively new to St. Louis, makes directing look almost too easy here. He has added some visual interest to give the audience something to watch—his characters move around a lot, White is fussy—almost obsessive-compulsive as he tidies small props or straightens a chair—while Black is animated when he tells his stories. The biggest trap inherent in this play is relayed in its subtitle (not used here), “A Novel in Dramatic Form.” First produced at Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2006 and performed here in a very good production by RS a few seasons back, there is much to digest. Both speakers have long monologues, and it would be easy enough to tune out, but just when you think you might, an action or an intonation in just the right place pulls you back in. And the last 10 minutes are as fine and as jarring as anything I’ve seen in a theatre in recent memory.

Black’s New York City apartment is clearly the home of a poor man, one who doesn’t care about possessions. His clothing indicates that he’s a painter, while White wears the classic plaid shirt-sweater vest-blazer combo that is the way we think professors dress. Marcy Wiegert has the costume credit. The set is by by Foizey and David Blake. Tyler Duenow’s lights don’t always make sense to me, but they are evocative. For example, there has to be a reason why White turns off a lamp as darkness approaches, but I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it is to indicate that, for him, night is always coming. The title is also symbolic because the real Sunset Limited never served New York, and White tried to jump in front of the subway, but the idea of the old passenger train appeals to the imagination.

When I found out who was in The Sunset Limited, I thought Zak Farmer was too young for his role, but that impression was quickly dispelled. And, in fact, he’s done middle-aged characters before, most notably in New Line Theatre’s searing production a few seasons back of Love Kills. He’s even played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray: The Musical, so he’s definitely versatile. The only giveaway is his hands—the rest of him looks like he has truly seen the troubles of the world. Mitchell is impeccable, a playful prophet who escapes easy and dismissive classification as the “magical negro.” The actors bobble a line here and there, but they are good enough to make it seem part of their characters. They are both extraordinary and this production is a punch to the gut and a challenge to the intellect, as it should be, considering the respective positions of Black and White.

This is the first production of the Theatre Lab organized by Foizey to give actors a chance to get their dream projects on stage, whether they are in full performance as this one, or work in progress. He notes, “We represent a community of St. Louis talent coming together to make art that has been hand-picked by its performers. . . this is truly actor’s theatre.” Foizey has set the bar high with this one, and if it’s any indication of what is to come, then we can look forward to their work with great anticipation.

The Sunset Limited runs through Aug. 17, 2013 at the Gaslight Theatre. If you go, tickets are available through http://thesunsetlimited.brownpapertickets.com or at the box office one hour before curtain. | Andrea Braun

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