Cormac McCarthy is best known as a novelist, responsible for such critically lauded titles as “Blood Meridian,” “All the Pretty Horses,” “No Country for Old Men” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Road.” But the writer has also penned two plays, and one of them, “The Sunset Limited,” opens at Stage Left Theater this weekend.
McCarthy isn’t prone to indulgence, specializing in spare, colloquial dialogue and a prose style so terse that he rarely bothers using punctuation. “The Sunset Limited” subscribes to McCarthy’s bare-bones narrative approach: It features only two characters in a single location, and it tells a simple, uncomplicated story that’s nonetheless crammed full of heady philosophical ideas.
“It’s been great to have such an intimate experience working with the two actors,” said the show’s director, Jennie Oliver. “I asked them about their characters, how they feel about them, where they see them coming from and what they’re trying to say. … I think table reads are great, but we also allowed for discoveries in rehearsal. It was a natural, organic process.”
The drama centers on two characters referred to simply by their respective skin colors – White (Ron Ford) and Black (Edward Casto). White, a jaded college professor, has just attempted suicide by jumping in front of a train. Black, who has found religion since getting out of prison for murder, saved White’s life, and now they’re back in Black’s apartment, where a long conversation ensues.
“It’s not so much a battle of wits, but it’s more of a conversation that deals with a lot of theological philosophies,” Oliver said. “The professor is an atheist and doesn’t have a lot of beliefs, whereas the character Black is an ex-con and has found his salvation through God.”
Over the course of the one-act play, the men talk about their pasts, their fears and their personal views on the ills of society. The characters aren’t the same by the show’s end, and Oliver says her own perception of the two men has changed while working on the production.
“If you read it, you might immediately think (White) is this old, bitter curmudgeon who’s given up on humanity. You kind of have an aversion to him,” Oliver said. “But as the play goes on and you start to peel those layers, you start to see how human he is, how broken he is. You wonder about his experiences, how it’s led him to this point. It really has pulled me in to try and understand him in a more human light.”
McCarthy’s work tends to explore challenging themes of masculinity, violence and death – consider the apocalyptic wastelands of “The Road” or the coin-flipping killer in “No Country for Old Men.” “The Sunset Limited” isn’t exactly a reprieve from the author’s bleak worldview, but it does offer a glimpse into the minds of two complex characters, and we come away understanding why they believe what they do.
“It addresses all of these issues that we deal with in all aspects of our lives, and it does it without alienating or insulting anyone, which I really enjoy,” Oliver said. “It’s so simple in its presentation, but it deals with so many things that everybody can relate to, which is what I look for in a show as an actor and a director.”