Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited concerns itself less with people than with archetypes. Black is played by a black man, White by a white man. White is an atheist professor. Black is a born-again ex-con. They meet because White has just tried to throw himself into the path of an oncoming commuter train called the Sunset Limited. Black has rescued him. At curtain rise, they are sitting in Black’s kitchen inside a junkie-infested apartment building trying to understand each other.
McCarthy, a Roman Catholic, has assigned to White a black nihilism, and to Black the role of light-filled savior. Their exchange on the nature of faith and unbelief proceeds like a kind of dark Dinner With Andre, shot through with humor before the No Country for Old Men author’s characteristic bleakness reasserts itself.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist has produced a play so rich in dialogue that it overshadows any other kind of dramatic device. That spareness doesn’t make it any less compelling, and in the Rubicon’s hands, it’s nearly always riveting. As Black and White, Tucker Smallwood and Joe Spano turn in exceptional performances that help flesh out the archetypes into living, breathing (for now) human beings. Brian McDonald’s minimalist direction keeps the language humming as the characters’ diametrical perspectives advance toward a breaking point.
The details we learn of each man’s life are slim. For Black, there were children and a wife, but no more. White had a father whom he neglected to visit on the latter’s deathbed. Greater attention is given to Black’s “jailhouse stories,” vivid accounts of brutal, bloody savagery unlikely to startle McCarthy fans. More important is each man’s viewpoint as the pair become proxies in a theological showdown.
Black says Jesus visited him after an attack that left him immobilized in a hospital bed. Taking the biblical “brother’s keeper” admonition to heart, he chooses to live among crackheads, ministering to the forsaken. White put his faith in the bulwark of human achievement, until waning popular regard for high culture and the arts crumbled his conviction. All he believes in now, he says, is the Sunset Limited.
Talk-heavy plays like this one do best when equality of opportunity — to score a philosophical checkmate — is sown into the script. The same can’t quite be said here. Along with race, class, education and life experience, McCarthy unevenly parcels out likability. White gets the erudite one-liners, but to Black he assigns the lion’s share of warmth and charisma, along with a fair bit of moderation. (Black is a self-described heretic with creative notions about Jesus.)
Smallwood embraces this easygoing charm and Southern hospitality, and he makes even Black’s more extreme positions sound inviting. Spano inhabits White’s existential despair, both unrelenting and matter-of-fact, with his apparent need for control dressed up as fatalism. White’s outlook is far less appealing, and isn’t really a fair counterpoint to Black’s sanded-down-around-the-edges Christianity. Regardless of how their personal beliefs align, audience members may find White’s dogmatic atheism a bit chilly.
Such intellectual gamesmanship bears repeated viewing. With acting this good, that’s a treat. The Sunset Limited catapults us into a journey we’re happy to inhabit until the last stop.
The Sunset Limited, through Nov. 17, Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura, 667-2900 or rubicontheatre.org.