Tonight I caught a preview performance of The SF Playhouse's production of Cormac McCarthy's "The Sunset Limited." One goes into a work by McCarthy expecting eloquent bleakness and this play delivers more than enough of both. If you're in any sort of a grim mood I suggest waiting to see it for another night and certainly don't see this on a first date. Thankfully I went alone and ended up seated in the front row to hear some of the finest nihilistic philosophizing McCarthy's written since The Crossing. It helps that all this despair is delivered in a very nuanced, piercing performance by Charles Dean, who plays a character simply called White.
White's been saved from committing suicide at the last minute by Black, performed by Carl Lumbly in an equally deft performance in what's ultimately the lesser role. However it doesn't start that way for Black, who has taken White back to his crackhead infested apartment in NYC to try to save him in another way. McCarthy's worldview has always been horrific but he maintains a balance for the first 3/4s of the play as both characters give as good as they get in what boils down to an argument about whether or not life is worth living. White says no, Black says yes. White is an atheist, Black is a believer. Both articulate their views with dialogue that flows with a strong sense of conviction and doesn't hit any false notes.
There is no gray to be found in this play and this works strongly in its favor because if one of the characters would waver in their convictions it would throw the whole thing off the track. There is no middle ground and McCarthy sets the whole play up perfectly- we want to know what White will do in the end and the drama moves in an Aristotelian way to its conclusion- no easy feat with only two actors onstage for one hour and a half long scene.
Lumbly and Dean are marvelous in these roles and the set by Bill English is perfect. English is also the director and does a fine job of keeping everything at a level that feels real. Since it was a preview they may tweak this and that, but regardless, this is an excellent production- the best I've seen this company do since their fantastic Killer Joe a few seasons back. See it- the run ends on 11/06/10 and there are a few liquor stores on Sutter going toward Leavenworth if you need one afterwards. I certainly did.