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The challenge in a minimalist play is to give a feeling of richness and depth, even though there might be few characters and relatively little scenic or costume design.
To stage such a production takes faith in cast, crew and audience, and Preston Lane takes that leap once again in The Sunset Limited, a one-act, one-scene play by Cormac McCarthy, and the fourth show in Triad Stage' s 10th season.
Lane makes our ride on "The Sunset Limited" a roller coaster of emotions, a back-and-forth transit between belief and non-belief, a journey that at times seems a sure destination, at others a tour of an endlessly dark tunnel. In short, it's a gripping, intense, sometimes comical, stare-down of the Grim Reaper.
The Sunset Limited - named for an actual passenger train that ran from New Orleans to Los Angeles - was written in 2006 and originally staged by Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago and New York. It recently made its way to HBO as a film adaptation with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel Jackson.
Pulitzer-winning McCarthy also wrote "No Country for Old Men", which won four Academy Awards in 2007 including best picture and best adapted screenplay. Indeed, McCarthy has been called our greatest living American author.
The Sunset Limited, first a play, now a book, is at best a debate on the meaning of life; at worst a well-contained quarrel about belief systems or the lack thereof. The two characters are a humanities professor, saved from certain death when he tries to commit suicide under a New York subway train, and a converted ex-con who catches him just as he attempts his swan dive.
Lane deemed McCarthy's characters, simply called "Black" and "White," "two of the most fascinating characters I have encountered in contemporary American theatre." To extract the fascination, however, one must be drawn not only into this intense conversation, but also into the context, the setting and the philosophical argument. No small task.
In the Triad Stage production, our Black and White are Harold Surratt and Kevin Kelly. Surratt makes his Triad Stage debut in a truly unforgettable performance as he goes head-to-head, not only with McCarthy's tough script, but Kelly's surly countenance. His many attempts to convince his counterpart that life is worth living are not overdone, overwrought or over thought, which would be an easy trap in which to fall for this character.
Kelly's last Triad Stage stop was "The Caretaker" four years ago, and his muted anger-disguised-as-agnosticism is perfect for a character who has somewhere along the way not only lost the will to live, but, indeed, embraced the will to die.
The sheer number of lines that these actors had to learn in this one-hour and forty minute play is mind-boggling. The fact that these lines seem so effortless, albeit painfully and brutally spoken, reflects the work put into this production.
Tony-nominated Alexander Dodge returns as the scenic designer for The Sunset Limited. This amazing set is partly accomplished with 40 light boxes that twinkle on as day grows into night. What at first seems one-dimensional becomes, in stages, two and three-dimensional, and finally, altogether transporting. Another set you simply must see to believe.
Triad Stage's The Sunset Limited is not only a tribute to Lane, his actors and crew, but a memorial to all those who deliberately took the last train, the metaphorical Sunset Limited.
This show runs through March 6. For details, see the sidebar.