Carl Lumbly (left) and Charles Dean move from issues of black and white into areas of gray in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited at the SF Playhouse. Photos by Jessica Palopoli
Cormac McCarthy makes a pretty good argument for the ruin of mankind in The Sunset Limited, a 2006 “novel in dramatic form.” But then again, McCarthy is his own best argument for mankind’s salvation.
By taking two characters, Black and White (each named for his race), McCarthy goes for the tricky gray area in this 95-minute dialogue about the worthiness of the human race. It’s a play defined by talk, not by action. The only real action of the play has taken place before the lights came up. Black, an ex-con murderer who is now an evangelical Christian, prevented White, a professor, from throwing himself in front of an oncoming subway train (aka The Sunset Limited, like the train that criss-crosses the Southern half of the U.S.).
The action of the play is about what doesn’t happen. Black has locked the door of his tenement apartment to prevent White from rushing out there and killing himself. The strategy, according to Black, is to ignite the light of God in White, and failing that, to at least turn him into a friend and instill in him a sense that life is worth living.
But White, a learned man whose refuge in education and art has ultimately failed him, makes a levelheaded case for exiting a world devoid of true meaning or true civility. “Western civilization went up in smoke at Dachau,” White says. Hard to argue with a man who sees life as a forced labor camp where we’re all marched to an ignominious end.
So who wins? The man who has heard – and listened to – the voice of God, a man of faith and deep compassion who now dedicates is life to saving others? Or the man with irrefutable arguments and a deadened soul?
It’s not giving anything away to say they both do. And their arguments make for a fascinating and compelling evening of theater in Bill English’s beautifully acted SF Playhouse production.
As played by Carl Lumbly and Charles Dean respectively, Black and White are eloquent and, in their unique ways, passionate about their particular ideologies. Lumbly’s Black is warm and soulful – his life experience has led him to a place of faith and forgiveness. He’s sensible about his faith and articulate without losing his sense of humor. White is, understandably, shaken. He set out to do something that he had been carefully considering for a long time and was thwarted. Now he’s stuck in the ramshackle apartment (the beautifully decrepit set is by director English) of a man spouting all the Jesus talk he doesn’t want to hear.
In spite of their opposing viewpoints and places in life, the two men develop a keen camaraderie. You even allow yourself to think that when White leaves the apartment, he may be willing to give humanity another shot. Then you remember this was written by the man who gave us The Road and No Country for Old Men.
But that’s part of what I mean about McCarthy being his own best argument for mankind at its best. When you’re able to write the way McCarthy does – with such economy and poetry and desolate beauty – you tap into the mysterious power of art. As an extraordinarily gifted artist, he creates a world and pulls us into its horror and wonder. The Sunset Limited doesn’t have the mythic power of his novels, nor is it terribly theatrical. But it pulses with intelligence and allows two extraordinary actors the opportunity to give us a master class on their art.
I’m not saying that anyone about to throw themselves in front of a train might change their mind after seeing this play, but it does crack open a thorny conversation. And the words reverberate long after the sun has set on this particular production.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited continues through Nov. 6 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$45. Call 415 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.