Monday, March 22, 2010

The Sunset Limited

It is a rare treat to go to the theater and find yourself stunned into contemplative silence.  That's where I found myself Saturday night at the opening of "The Sunset Limited".  I rose quickly to applaud the masterful work of actors Peter Thomasson and E. Roger Mitchell, but then caved back into my seat as the houselights came up, still reckoning with what I'd experienced.

The play was penned by Cormac McCarthy, a writer who refuses to shy away from stories about the nature of evil ("No Country for Old Men"), the darkness of destiny ("The Road"), or in this case, the question of God.  To borrow a quote from the author of the children's books "A Series of Unfortunate Events", if you're looking for a story about a happy little elf, you can walk away from this tale right now.

I don't want to divulge too much, but I will tell you the story sets two men together in a room - one a former convict who found God during his prison experience, the other an atheist, a college professor who has found no compelling reason for faith in mankind or a higher power...or to go on living for that matter.

What unfolds for the next 100 minutes is an eschatological chess match between the two men, a twist on Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" in a way.  Though at times, McCarthy, the actors, and director Jessica Phelps West find opportunities for pure philosophical pugilism to accompany the strategic chess moves.  It's a powerful meditation on why we're here, and why some take comfort while others take exception.

McCarthy is so careful with his choice of words (read "Blood Meridian" and tell me the man doesn't labor over the precision of language like no one since Joyce) that every exchange is layered with meaning.  It's a play few will believe they could experience more than once because of its depth and the magnitude of the subject matter, and yet, it cries out to be seen repeatedly, the manuscript purchased, dogeared, and highlighted until the pages are caked sunflower yellow.

So rich is the script, in fact, that it is really a warning to the actors and director who dare to navigate it.  Luckily, the show is the hands of amazingly capable people who take every line, every layered linguistic epiphany and set it into the proper context, right up to the searing, unsettling climax.  The thought that this same play is being rehearsed right now by Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson for an HBO production gives me hope that the rest of the world will see the same caliber of work that Theatrical Outfit is putting on the stage right now.

I'll admit, I'm a sucker for three things that this play has in spades:  outstanding writing, rich theological discussion, and theatrical minimalism.  Cormac McCarthy, two men in a sparse room, and the tug-of-war between two notions: a benevolent or an absentee God.  That's all I need to be truly shaken to the core.

It may not be a play for everyone, surely if the happy little elf reference gave you a tingle of comfort than perhaps you better hold off for a splashy musical.  But, if you want to-the-bone theatre, a night that will open up a world of questions and discussion, rather than serve up pat answers and tie up the neat bow of closure, then "The Sunset Limited" is calling your name.

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