Theater Review: ‘The Sunset Limited’ at SF Playhouse

In a sense, author Cormac McCarthy is shadow boxing.

Carl Lumbly* and Charles Dean* - Sunset Unlimited - *Courtesy of Actors' Equity Photos by Jessica Palopoli
Carl Lumbly* and Charles Dean* - Sunset Unlimited - *Courtesy of Actors' Equity Photos by Jessica Palopoli
In Review

The Sunset Limited

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars - 'Sweet Stuff'
SF Playhouse
Directed by Bill English
Starring Charles Dean and Carl Lumbly
By Cormac McCarthy
www.sfplayhouse.org
Review by
Carl Lumbly* and Charles Dean* - Sunset Unlimited - *Courtesy of Actors' Equity  Photos by Jessica Palopoli
Carl Lumbly* and Charles Dean* - Sunset Unlimited - *Courtesy of Actors' Equity Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Dramaturg Nicholas C. Pappas suggests that Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country for Old Men) stories “serve as a warning, a modern day fable, like those of Aesop.” In The Sunset Limited, which opened last night at SF Playhouse, we get an intimate look into the author’s bleak, yet engrossing, view of the world. Are humans violent by nature, for instance, and does a utopian outlook including belief in life-after-death merely serve to pacify society?

The story is literally and figuratively black and white. Two men, “Black” a believer all too familiar with the “jailhouse” and “White” a suicidal atheist spend ninety minutes, in a single act, debating religion, God, morals and primacy of the intellect.

Black, who lives in a “moral leper colony,” converses with the almighty power and is content with what he gets in life, even though it’s not what he wants. Chances are everything he knows can be traced to the Bible (“The best book”), even though he doesn’t necessarily agree with all of it. A chance meeting brings a white professor to his worn-down apartment. White is an analytical skeptic, and confirmed heretic. “Why is there no ministry in hell?” he asks. For him, there is value in books, music and art.

The two performances by Charles Dean and Carl Lumbly are, well… devine. Here you have two seasoned actors sparring, and telling stories in one continuous, real-time act. It never ceases to amaze me how much dialog these professionals need to memorize. Dean’s detailed work with mannerisms–flinching fingers, twitching eyes–are expert. And Lumbly effectively captures the violent undertone of a man who, on the exterior, appears peaceful.

Carl Lumbly* and Charles Dean*
Carl Lumbly* and Charles Dean* in The Sunset Limited at SF Playhouse

What I find fascinating about the material is author Caromac McCarthy’s ability to entrench so firmly both sides of the argument. I’ve never read the book, however, I’d hazard a guess that White is very much him. But McCarthy doesn’t write a one-dimensional foil in Black. Instead he creates a complicated man who may not superficially appear as intelligent, but is determined to find that gold–the core–at the bottom of a mine. In a sense, McCarthy is shadow boxing.

While I normally get my helpings of Darwin, evolution and the celebration of rational thought from Richard Dawkins, one of the greatest living scientists of our time, I find McCarthy’s sociological and historical centered perspective intriguing; if not slightly depressing.

On the downside, just like watching two relatives with perhaps a little too much after-dinner libation debate religion, it can wear — often degenerating into no-win shouting matches. While that’s not entirely the case here, the cerebral Sunset is arguably far from the purest form of entertainment. To paraphrase: I don’t want to be loved by God! You mean you don’t want to be happy, why not? It pacifies people and led to the downfall of the Roman Empire. Why? Because people believe in God…

With The Sunset Limited, SF Playhouse kicks of its 8th season in dramatic fashion. It feels immediately different from last, which celebrated the “Power of Laughter.” And this production is a satisfying answer to the question, Why Theatre?

The Sunset Limited
By Cormac McCarthy
SF Playhouse
3.5 out of 5 stars
Starring Charles Dean and Carl Lumbly
Directed by Bill English
Through Nov. 6, 2010
www.sfplayhouse.org

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