Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 play The Sunset Limited is the last major outing for the Actors Co-Op at the Black Box Theatre in Bearden before the company becomes semi-itinerant, and the show is a fairly noble swansong to what will be a fondly remembered venue. Like the space, the production is in no way perfect, yet it offers more in its imperfections than many shows with more means but less heart.
The heart in question, of course, is a dark one. Suffused with the malevolent angst that is McCarthy’s trademark, The Sunset Limited charts the abruptly book-ended relationship of White, a suicidal nihilist, and Black, his self-appointed guardian angel. White wants to die, Black wants him to live, and the play’s opposing forces don’t end there: McCarthy weighs faith against doubt and intellect against intuition as he mines the brutal lyricism of the American language for clues to the nature of man.
Director Travis Flatt, along with Kyle Biery’s bold, lurching set, deserve full marks for the panache with which they immediately push us into the action. Neither, however, is a match in the end for the play’s increasingly repetitious arguments.
In the first half, the script crackles and fizzes along pleasingly enough. The two actors are never less than interesting, and both revel in the rough poetry of the text. “Was he killed?” “I hope so. We buried him.”
What Stephen Dupree (Black) lacks in technique he more than makes up for in instinct, and he is one of the most likable stage presences I’ve seen. As the ragged evangelist he dominates the space from his chair, his huge legs firmly planted with trousers flapping mid-shin. Dupree can achieve more by sticking out a lower lip than many actors can with a monologue. When his voice descends to its lower registers it sounds like a double bass tuning up.
Greg Congleton’s White is a twitchy, defensive study in pessimism. Standing, Congleton’s posture has a stranded arrogance. Seated, he becomes an unsolvable matrix of hyperactivity. Imagine Larry King being told he must win his chess game before being allowed to visit the lavatory and you’ll be some way to picturing the hunches and twists that Congleton’s bony, knotted frame undergoes as it endlessly apologizes for itself. Throughout, his expression maintains indignation at a level that most faces only achieve in the two seconds after they’re slapped, and his eyes give him the wild look of an accountant after a killing spree.
But then comes the second half. Most plays are 15 minutes too long. This one could lose a full hour. The actors begin to slog it out like exhausted heavyweights clutching onto each other’s necks, while the script offers its over-familiar arguments in ever-decreasing circles. Here, sadly, we encounter a dearth of new directorial ideas just when we need them the most. If the estate won’t let you cut the text, at least put a rocket under the thing. After a while it began to feel like we were watching the first half in slow motion, and a couple of times it felt like we’d stopped altogether. At one point I could have sworn we were now going backwards.
Paradoxically it is only a final, arresting manifesto of despair from Congleton that briefly lifts us, but the effect of this is largely blotted out by the blocking of the last five minutes, which is unforgivably bad. If you’re going to direct a play that spends all evening building up to a door being opened, at least make sure when we get there that this simple function can be performed without a chair being knocked out of the way and an actor having to clumsily squeeze past a table.
A shame to dwell on the weaknesses. Even with the grotesquely swollen second act, there is still much more good than bad here. Indeed, The Sunset Limited is perhaps the most entertaining debate yet on the existence of God. As an endorsement, I’m conscious this will prompt as much of a stampede of visitors as endorsing Basra as the safest city in Iraq, yet in fact both have more than their share of cultural delights. However, after a couple of hours at the Black Box I was beginning to wish I had a better exit strategy. With this play—his second, written just two years ago—McCarthy has arrived late to the theater. I hope he won’t object to our leaving early.