“The Sunset Limited” – A Debate For the Ages


Cormac McCarthy’s riveting play, “The Sunset Limited,” currently being staged at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, is one of those productions you need to see more than once, a thought-provoking meeting of minds whose deliberate ambiguities enable the viewer to approach it from a variety of perspectives. The two-man show stars a pair of exemplary actors: Joe Spano (“NCIS,” “Hill Street Blues”) and Tucker Smallwood (“Star Trek: Enterprise,” “The Last Minstrel Show”), who portray “White” and “Black,” the unnamed debating opponents in the play. The story begins shortly after Black prevents White from throwing himself off of a railroad platform into the path of an oncoming train, the Sunset Limited of the play’s title. Taking place in Black’s shabby New York City apartment, the play is a philosophical chess match in which each attempts to convince the other of their respective outlooks on life, and especially, religion.

Black is an ex-convict who served time for murder and who almost killed a fellow prisoner while incarcerated, a sequence that Smallwood relates in agonizingly dramatic fashion. Since his parole, he has become a Good Samaritan, a sinner looking for redemption through charity as his ticket into Heaven. White is a disillusioned, but highly educated professor at an unnamed university, who has spent his entire life futilely searching for the meaning to man’s existence on earth.

The two characters are polar opposites. Black believes in God and is comfortable with his faith. White is an avowed atheist and sees no proof of a higher being. In the beginning, they debate, circling each other in the one-room apartment like boxers, parrying verbal jabs and engaging in a series of interrogatory questions about each other’s belief system. It’s optimism vs. cynicism; hope vs. despair. Black’s manner is folksy and earthy. “I always did like a challenge,” he says, while sizing up his opponent. White, a self-described “culture junkie,” is terse and Socratic, as a college professor should be. Neither gives ground, and the questioning shifts back and forth as first one, and then the other, pose pointed questions, each trying to convince the other of their respective “realities.” Both clearly revel in the debate. Black knows that if White leaves the apartment, he will ultimately return to the train station to complete his suicidal mission. He tries as many tricks as he can to keep White in the apartment and clearly sees the battle as a challenge. Who will win?

The fact that McCarthy does not give his characters formal names indicates that something is going on that is greater than just an encounter between two people, one trying to save the other from killing himself. It’s likely that one, or even both of the combatants are constructs, hinted at when White asks Black if he is an “angel” and wondering why he cares about the life of a stranger. On the one hand, Black sees White as a test of his faith. White does his best to convince Black that there is no God, to no avail. But on the other hand, White sees Black as a representation of something he may have has lost over the years: his own faith, if he ever had one. It’s even possible that both are not real, and merely are pieces in an allegory representing the “black” and “white” of the ongoing debate about the existence of God.

Black believes that the secret to happiness is “getting what we need, not what we want.” White sees himself as a “terminal commuter,” using the Sunset Limited as a metaphor for life’s journey, except he has decided not to take it to the end of the line. His most chilling scene is when he speaks longingly of death, welcoming the solitude, the nothingness, and the peace of ceasing to exist. Although we get to know something about Black’s life, we know little about what caused White’s disillusionment, only that it developed long ago when he was very young. Is there a truth? Or does it all depend on one’s own personal belief system?

Spano and Smallwood are masterful in their respective roles. At the curtain, they clearly acknowledged each other as teammates would in a sporting event; the chemistry palpable in both men’s performances is something that is inescapable and highly rewarding. “The Sunset Limited” reveals no answers. I will not divulge the result of the struggle between the two; you’ll have to see the show yourself to find out, but suffice it to say, this thought-provoking and highly moving production provides questions to ponder, no matter what your belief system.

“The Sunset Limited” plays through November 17 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.




The fact that McCarthy didn’t give his characters formal names indicates that the debate represents something greater than appears.

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