The Sunset Limited begins with a black ex-con saving a white academic from throwing himself in front of an oncoming train, only to learn that his heroic efforts are unappreciated. The play, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright Cormac McCarthy, is the latest production at Uprooted Theatre, Milwaukee’s African-American troupe.
McCarthy sets his tale in the sparse apartment of the ex-con, an Evangelical Christian who is only identified as “Black” (played by Lee Palmer). The academic, an atheist named “White” (James Pickering), believes he no longer has reason to live. The resulting two-hour discourse considers the meaning of human suffering, the existence of God and the propriety of White’s attempted suicide in what McCarthy called “a novel in dramatic form.”
“Jim Pickering shared the piece with me some three years ago,” says Uprooted cofounder Marti Gobel, who is directing the production. “The play is smart and deep and heartbreaking in its presentation of complex philosophical ideas.”
Despite the author’s blatant reference to — and perhaps dependence on — the skin color of his characters, the play offers more than a discussion of racial stereotypes, Gobel says. In fact, the traditional roles the colors play are anything but black and white in their character shadings, she says.
“Black is a known indicator of the neg- ative, white of the positive,” Gobel says. “But in The Sunset Limited these notions get tipped on their ear, causing the audience to search for meaning in shades of gray.”
McCarthy’s characters engage in an almost Socratic discussion in the dialogue- driven play, named for the famous train that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Two equally bright minds, drawn together from two dramatically different sub-cultures and socio-economic groups, debate eternal life with insight that illustrates McCarthy’s understanding of philosophy and religious traditions, Gobel says.
“As a student of philosophy, I found myself keeping a running tally of who was making the strongest, syllogistically sound arguments,” Gobel explains. “It was a pleasure to find that my own spiritual convictions were on slightly unsteady ground by the play’s end.”
Founded in 2009 by Gobel, director Denis F. Johnson and actors Travis Knight and Tiffany Cox, Uprooted Theatre has also staged productions of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and other modern classics. Uprooted’s next production is an April 14 staged reading of My Red Hand, My Black Hand by Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith, author of Yellowman. Like The Sunset Limited, the production also will be staged at Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St.
Early criticism of the play, which opened in May 2006 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, took issue with the narrative’s lack of action as the characters debate life’s deeper issues. But critics also said McCarthy’s rich language made for compelling drama, something Gobel believes will help elevate Uprooted’s production.
“Our job is to tell the story and create an opportunity for people to discuss the issues that are raised within that story,” Gobel says. “It’s a play by Cormac McCarthy, featuring Jim Pickering and Lee Palmer, that is focused on the topics of life and death. That sounds like the potential for a great night of theatre in my book.”
Uprooted Theatre’s production of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited runs March 13–23 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. For more information, visit www.uprootedmke.com or www.nextact.org.