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The Sunset Limited

Trinity Street Players production lightens heavy load.

Reviewed by Matthew Irwin, Fri., Aug. 9, 2013

Derek Jones (l) and Trevor Bissell bring it down to black and white.
Derek Jones (l) and Trevor Bissell bring it down to black and white.

The Sunset Limited

Trinity Street Players, First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity, 512/402-3086
www.trinitystreetplayers.com
Through Aug. 18
Running time: 1 hr., 33 min.

Before I first sat through The Sunset Limited at the 2007 Galway Arts Festival, I couldn't bear the work of Cormac McCarthy. Taken literally, it is a hard read. The writer of No Country for Old Men and The Road is clearly a skilled technician – creating suspense without withholding information, for instance – but he's also an absolutist. Most people are depraved, in his view, except for the enlightened few whose choices are limited to observing or running. The arts provide some level of comfort, but we'll get to that.

As The Sunset Limited demonstrates, however, McCarthy's work is not literal. It's allegorical – a test of the human will, whether we can face the desert, as Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, and not concede. Nonetheless, audience members left the Trinity Street Players' free production of The Sunset Limited expressing feelings of heaviness. They should be grateful, however, that TSP delivered a more lighthearted (as much as possible) rendition than the one I saw in Galway.

Our first hints that this is allegory are the characters' names: They are called "Black" (Trevor Bissell) and "White" (Derek Jones) in the script, while they answer to "Preacher" and "Professor," respectively, throughout the play. And the play is full of these little meta moments: White says to Black, "You're so black-and-white." Black later says to White, "It's a story about what you want and what you get."

White has surrendered to the desert. Or he was about to by jumping in front of a subway train, called the Sunset Limited, when Black swooped in and saved him. We learn about this as the two men talk in Black's shabby apartment, where the whole play takes place. It's very telling that the closest we come to finding out what's bothering him is his description – meshing perhaps Slavoj Zizek with Blanche DuBois – of a world in which art and culture no longer provide a barrier against the deep. "The efforts that people undertake to improve the world invariably make it worse," he says.

Black is an ex-con who has devoted his life to helping junkies and lowlifes, and he just knows Jesus Christ is in the room, always. His view of evil is Miltonian: The bad helps us recognize the good. However, he struggles to find common ground with White, who's an atheist and therefore can see no purpose in his struggle.

This is a key work in McCarthy's canon, paring down his narrative to declare his view of existence and argue it against a foil. It's a battle of mind and heart that makes McCarthy's dismal view more bearable, even if he does remain so absolute.

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