Train to Desperation: The Emotionless Journey of Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited at None Too Fragile Theater

If you've ever been bothered by all the weepy emotion that goes on in most plays as cerebral issues about religion and death are batted about, then we have the play for you. Indeed, The Sunset Limited at None Too Fragile Theater is so drained of emotional involvement, it feels like a treatise. Or maybe the appendix to a treatise.

Clearly, playwright Cormac McCarthy (author of the post-apocalyptic The Road and the dark and gothic No Country for Old Men) is not given to writing sprightly drawing-room comedies. But in this allegorical play, he has stripped away virtually all character back stories so that nothing gets in the way of his 80-minute bullet train to desperation.

The two actors, under the direction of Sean Derry, try to pump some humanity into the proceedings. But McCarthy's purpose and method here are at once so didactic and so bleak that there are few glimmers of actual people amid the fierce and focused fire of his words. And that can become tiresome, even as it occasionally tweaks your intellect.

The virtually nonexistent plot involves a black man and a white man who are dubbed Black and White in the program (fortunately, they don't call each other that). The white man, a professor, apparently tried to turn himself into subway salad by throwing himself under the "Sunset Limited." But the black man rescued him and brought him back to his tenement flat to give him some hope about life.

As a result, the play focuses on the topic of life and death. Very rarely do the two men actually converse in a manner you might expect. Instead, the black man launches into a number of preaching modes as he talks about the everlasting life that God can provide if one only believes. He is the omniscient black man, a role that Morgan Freeman has co-opted in numerous films.

While feeding the professor a simple but delicious meal, the self-anointed preacher works hard, asking the professor numerous questions intended to lead his captive student to a realization of life's inherent worth.

One thing we learn about the preacher is that he was in jail, where God spoke to him and put him on a path to help other unfortunate men. So he's in the habit of bringing various down-and-outers into his home where they can rest a bit and, hopefully, find religion.

But the professor insists that many people don't want to believe in God, including him, and while he finds the preacher somewhat interesting, the professor is clearly wedded to his original agenda.

As Black, Myron Lewis is an imposing gentleman and he demonstrates the vocal strength and commitment to be a powerful purveyor of religious beliefs. But in a play that is so relentlessly one-note, Lewis never loosens up on the reins enough to give the preacher more emotional levels.

Richard Worswick is necessarily more monochromatic as the professor, since he's just tried to kill himself. But even though his emotional palette is constricted by the playwright, there should still be ways he could vary his delivery and not just be a defeated sock puppet.

Finally, in the last 10 minutes of the play, Worswick's professor rises to the occasion and delivers McCarthy's venomous rejoinder to all the God-talk that has come before. Finally, we see the passion that underlies the desire to extinguish one's own life, and it is jarring and arresting.

You have to admire McCarthy for his single-minded approach to this play as allegory, setting up two spokesmen for opposing views of life and having them just whup on one another for almost an hour and a half. But there are precious few places in this performance where the audience can connect with either person, or care who wins the argument.

And that is the problem with allegories as drama. When characters just represent concepts, there is nothing at stake other than a debating prize. Indeed, director Derry rarely has the actors actually look at each other, and without eye contact the men become distant from each other even as they share the same small space.

While the ending of this debate isn't as predictable as one might expect, it still lacks the gristle of real human interaction that could make the audience care, instead of just observe.

The Sunset Limited

Through Sept. 27

at None Too Fragile Theater,

1835 Merriman Rd., Akron,


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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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