“The Sunset Limited”
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 11. $35. Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. N.W., Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org.
Bottom line: Two great performances rise above the mire.
By Bert Osborne
E. Roger Mitchell (left) and Peter Thomasson. Photo: Chris Bartelski
At what point does an utterly lugubrious drama become a richly satisfying experience?
In the case of Theatrical Outfit’s “The Sunset Limited,” look to actors Peter Thomasson and E. Roger Mitchell. Giving two of the season’s mightiest performances, they transcend their finally off-putting material with a pair of beautifully crafted portrayals that are a privilege to behold.
Rather ostentatiously described as “a novel in dramatic form” — in other words, a play — by best-selling author Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men”), “Sunset” is a test of faith as much for the audience as for its grandiosely named characters: White (Thomasson), a suicidal loner who doesn’t believe in anything, except that “being happy is contrary to the human condition”; and Black (Mitchell), a ghetto “guardian angel” and ex-con, who devoutly assumes the responsibility of being his brother’s keeper.
They chance to meet late one night on a subway platform, and for 100 intermission-less minutes their “spiritual interrogation” proceeds along a single track. They debate life and death, mortality and eternity, culture and community, the “primacy of the intellect” and religion as a “fellowship of pain.” If Ingmar Bergman hadn’t tried it before, you could envision them playing their game and making their moves on a symbolic chessboard.
Director Jessica Phelps West keeps the train of thought rolling at a steady clip, but McCarthy’s drama feels overlong and indulgent. After more than an hour, and with a third of the play still to go, redundancy sets in as White and Black continue to argue. There’s a difference between knowing what you want and knowing what you don’t want. Between what you want and what you need. Between what you want and what you get. Enough already.
The show’s noteworthy set design is by Isabel A. and Moriah Curley-Clay — a creditably detailed look at Black’s tenement apartment, with a view of that ominous subway just beyond — and Jonathan Summers’ soundtrack of constantly passing trains in the night is nicely understated, nearly subliminal. (At first, and for some reason only once, Cristopher P. Kettrey’s background lights flicker with the sound to chilling effect.)
To borrow from another of the men’s ongoing debates, you may come to “doubt” McCarthy’s tedious sermonizing, but thanks to West’s actors you never “question” the authenticity of the preachers. Thomasson, the venerable Atlanta veteran (late of lighter supporting roles in “The Savannah Disputation” and “The Men of Mah-Jongg”), relishes an uncommonly juicy assignment with customary skill and sensitivity. Mitchell (“A Cool Drink a Water,” “Miss Evers’ Boys”) is in rarer form, delivering nothing less than his most astounding work to date.
The play essentially force-feeds us a heavy helping of — wait for McCarthy to reiterate it — “soul food,” but what a joy it is to savor and digest two such magnanimous performances.