J. Barrett Cooper & Clyde Tyrone Harper. Photo: Bunbury Theatre.
The Sunset Limited
By Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Steve Woodring
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019, by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Writer Cormac McCarthy subtitled his play The Sunset Limited, “a novel in dramatic form”, and that immediately calls into question exactly what is going on here. Basically it is two guys talking for a couple of hours. They also have coffee and eat. White (J. Barrett Cooper) is a professor whose suicide attempt was thwarted earlier by Black (Clyde Tyrone Harper). Now they are in Black’s apartment engaged in conversation about theology, morality, and the nature of human existence.
The play has none of the narrative and violent incidence that are found in McCarthy’s celebrated novels, and the NYC tenement setting is a world away from their typical southwestern U.S. locations, but the themes are not entirely unfamiliar, if academic in their treatment. Life and death are the stakes here, a struggle for salvation on several levels.
I would think it nearly impossible not to identify with what takes place on the stage here. Some of the audience will understand Black’s expression of deep and hard-won faith in God, while others will see themselves in the unsettled cynicism and existential crisis of White. For a good portion of the running time it feels as if Black demands our allegiance, but eventually, White finds the words to expose the integrity of his position. You can decide for yourself whether the ending is happy or not.
Onstage, the whole thing might be flat as a pancake if the actors don’t bring it to life. Cooper and Harper, working under the direction of Steve Woodring, are mining the material right in front of us, crafting individual characterizations that establish a human context for the volley of conflicting ideas. That the text lacks the usual dramatic structural devices and is repetitive with its themes and motifs is likely a challenge for even the best cast, and opening night showed Cooper and Harper finding the late steps in their process. Harper does a few things in the kitchen, but otherwise, this is all talk, an un-ending stream of rich and complicated language.
I’m still pondering the significance of the specific racial identities. Black is an ex-convict and evangelical Christian, while White is a depressed Atheist academic. Perhaps it is intended to simply underscore the distance between the two men but is also seems unsubtle for McCarthy. His gift for dialogue offers an opportunity for detail and nuance, but the pedantic schematic structure remains. McCarthy has set these characters up as stereotypes that, again, demand the work of two good actors to make them more than that.
Woodring has also designed an unusual set that includes a portion of all four walls so that the two men are enclosed in a way not common in live theatre. Along with the heavy chain that Black uses to secure his door, they establish a claustrophobic prison-like environment that reinforces the enforced circumstances of the encounter.
The Sunset Limited is not easy, but the best theatre asks something more of its audience than escapism. McCarthy The struggle between two conflicting souls may not be escapist, but you may find it difficult to escape the questions it poses once you leave the theatre.
The Sunset Limited
October, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, & 19 @ 7:30pm
October 6, 13, & 20 @ 2:00pm
Bunbury Theatre Company
The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY, 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.