Cormac McCarthy’s Play Runs through November 17
By Tom Jacobs
Is it just me, or is a spirited debate over whether life is worth living uniquely exhilarating? Questions don’t get any more basic or meaningful, and while despair has the edge on an intellectual level, hope wins out emotionally every time. It has to. Otherwise we might as well throw ourselves in front of a train — which is the grim choice made by one of the two characters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, playing through November 17 at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre.
In this story, a middle-aged white academic (he goes by the nickname “the professor,” although his field of study is unclear), is saved at the last second by a black ex-con who has found Jesus and devoted his life to saving others — or at least trying his best to do so. As the two men sit in his dingy apartment, drinking coffee and trading barbs, the ever-hopeful Christian admits his track record, in terms of getting people to see the light, is pretty poor. This day isn’t shaping up to be any better: The professor, a diagnosed depressive who loathes humanity and has lost the solace he once took from culture, seems beyond saving.
As the two men talk, the ex-con pulls out every trick he knows, displaying a sharp and flexible mind as he tells stories of his days in prison and suggests the professor find a community he can feel a part of — even if it’s the community of suicidally depressed people. Refreshingly un-dogmatic, he seems to be getting the better of the argument, until the professor embarks on a scathing monologue reminding him of the inevitability of death (not only our own, but everyone we love) and describing our quest for meaning as childish and futile. Like a gripping courtroom drama, only with much higher stakes, you’ll likely find your allegiance swinging back and forth, from one man to the other.
Their 100-minute-long standoff is powerful, thoughtful, and eloquent. In the steady hands of director Brian McDonald, it’s also taut and emotionally charged. McDonald keeps things simple, trusting the script and his two superb actors, Tucker Smallwood and Joe Spano. And that trust is warranted. Edgy and agitated, Spano effectively portrays a smart man at the end of his rope; this guy may have lost faith in humanity, but he still enjoys a well-matched intellectual joust.
However, it’s Smallwood who dominates the stage. Alternately relaxed and wound-up, sharp and tender — whatever it takes to get his message across — he gives a remarkably rich portrayal of a man on a mission. Surprisingly, at the end, your heart aches more for his character than for Spano’s. Spano, after all, has no God; Smallwood, on the other hand, wonders why his deity has forsaken him.
Pulitzer-Prize-winner Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited is a tough, funny, beautifully written play, presenting the kind of darkly compelling drama we have come to expect from McCarthy's best work. It is a philosophical work, keenly drawn from the tradition of mid-twentieth century metaphysical theatre and existential literature. Originally commissioned by Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company, this is also a must-see, absolutely top-notch production.
Set in a New York City ghetto apartment, it is really timeless, and as written, the first half presents a certain abstract ambiguity that allows the audience to quesion whether one of the characters is even still alive at the time of the play. This ambiguity is exploited best by a more minimal set, and the set designer, Giamario, an old favorite of Rubicon audiences, appropriately gives us an abstract set, an idea which could have been taken further. The effect is underscored by Stacie Logue's deft and understated costume design.
Emmy Award-winner Joe Spano and Tucker Smallwood in Rubicon's The Sunset Limited. Confronting the beast within. PHOTO CREDIT : Jeanne Tanner
If this all sounds possibly grim and serious, it could be, but isn't. Serious, yes; but in McCarthy's hands serious is an opportunity for deeply satisfying dark humor, hilarious exchanges, and a good-natured ironic and open-hearted poke at the foibles of the human condition, life and death, and how we think about it.
McCarthy accomplishes this by throwing two huge, complex, strong characters against each other: Sunset Limited is a tour-de-force two-man ensemble piece, in this case played by Emmy Award-winning, Joe Spano, who some will recognize from hisTobias Fornell-character on TV's NCIS, and Tucker Smallwood, who played the same part in the Rogue Machine Theatre's production.
The actors are magnificient, with Smallwood delivering an overwhelming performance of great power and fine nuance. His timing is impeccable, keeping us fully engaged as these two chareacters traverse a dense and difficult script.
This is not fluff entertainment, but all the more reason to go see it. This is drama for the soul, for our depths, for our dense and difficult times, for those who seek light in the darkness.
Don't miss it, if for no other reason that to see Smallwoods wonderful acting: it is one of the best productions you will see in the Western United States--or anywhere for that matter---this year.
The Rubicon Theatre
1006 East Main Street
Ventura, CA 93001
through November 17th