The small and dingy New York apartment, that serves as the single set in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited marks a departure from the playwrights more scenic vistas, but the themes and tone of writing are unmistakable. The two-hander, turned into a film by Tommy Lee Jones, with Samuel L. Jackson as a co-star, comes to The Boulevard Theatre directed by Terry Johnson.
We never learn the names of the two men who stand before us on stage, the script refers to them only as Black and White, and that represents not only the colour of their skin but their outlook on life, and perhaps more importantly, death. “You see everything in black and white…I suppose that makes the world easier to understand”, the ex-jailbird, who has embraced religion, has pulled from the railway tracks a college professor ready to meet his maker, except the professor doesn’t believe in God, he doesn’t believe in anything.
The play begins shortly after this failed suicide attempt, Black has taken White back to his apartment, determined to set him on a path of righteousness before releasing him back in to the world. Though he denies it, Black clearly sees this as a test of his faith, the ultimate need for salvation has presented itself as quickly as the commuter train, which the play is named after, hurtles down the tracks.
The Sunset Limited becomes a demanding duologue, in which the characters argue, debate and interrogate each other’s outlook on life. At first Black has the upper hand, his moral compass and intellect surprising the professor, and whatever your own religious views, you find yourself drawn to his side of the argument. But allegiances shift throughout this play with both characters presenting equally valid and thought-provoking insights.
Black (Gary Beadle) has a little more energy about him, which isn’t surprising given that White (Jasper Britton) has just had his plans for death foiled, and so the latter spends much of the ninety minutes slumped and defeated. That changes in the final monologue from White, which is chilling in its fervour and presents an image so bleak it seems futile to try and counter it.
The Sunset Limited is so thematically laden that it becomes all too easy to forget about the characters, indeed it becomes difficult to empathise or care about either of them. Black’s initial interrogations are amusing and clever, but any sense of joy that tries to creep in is sucked up by White’s deeply negative view of the world and everything in it. It all becomes deeply depressing, and any glimmer of hope that may have existed is well and truly snuffed out.
Still, these are important themes and both Beadle and Britton navigate through the heavy text at just the right pace, Terry Johnson’s direction is tight and ensures that the focus is always on the right character at the right time.
The Sunset Limited is more darkness than light, but the themes it explores are timely and increasingly relevant in the modern world. It often asks questions, but rarely provides answers, choosing to stay on the platform rather than take a definitive leap towards either faith or reason.