Who wins in a battle of hope and despair?

by Lenise Willis

Actor Harold Surratt (left) pleads the case for afterlife to actor Kevin Kelly in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited. (courtesy photo)

As a play driven by dialogue rather than action, The Sunset Limited lives up to creator Cormac McCarthy’s description of “a novel in dramatic form.” And no dialogue is more dramatic than his characters’ discussion of life and death, and ultimately hope and despair.

The tale begins after a single act of seemingly accidental grace. White, an unnamed professor, has given up on life and tries to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of The Sunset Limited, a passenger train. Black, an African-American ex-con, catches the professor before he can take his great leap. Afterward, at Black’s behest, the two find themselves sitting in Black’s Harlem apartment discussing life, death, spirituality and science.

The dialogue is propelled by Black’s need to ultimately save the professor and convince him to take a second chance on life. He is driven by his faith and hope. Contrastingly, however, White is driven by despair. Giving up is simply the only thing White won’t give up on, and he views the final dark nothingness of death as the only reward for putting up with life.

McCarthy’s writing is exquisite in its ability to connect two such contrasting characters. The more simple-minded Black and the intellectual White would seem to play on unequal grounds for such a deep conversation, and yet the two remain perfectly capable of talking one another in circles. Their terse exchanges are both thought-provoking and poetic.

Triad Stage director Preston Lane, known for artistically tackling challenges in the theater, proves that the dramatic conversation is enough to hold play audiences in his direction of The Sunset Limited. The production manages to be set both in a harsh reality and in a seemingly fantastical spiritual experience, making audiences wonder if they’re in a real-world apartment or some sort of purgatory where Black offers White a second chance of salvation.

Actors Harold Surratt (Black) and Kevin Kelly (White) manage to develop a connection between the contrasting characters with a quickwitted chemistry.

In his Triad Stage debut, Surratt’s warming voice and faint country accent shine through in Black’s hilarious quips and rough jailhouse stories.

Suited in a wind suit, Kelly demonstrates his character’s exasperation and sits on stage as if his character has been defeated by life itself. He certainly looks like he’s given up, neglecting life’s rules on both hygiene and fashion.

Besides the character’s dialogue, the set remains silent for the most part.

The lack of noise seems to be a lost opportunity to establish the apartment’s rough Harlem surroundings. White noise of domestic disputes or cars would have added to White’s concerns of the apartment’s safety. However, the choice of silence and the absence of such living noises may work to the play’s advantage by suspending reality and again forcing audiences to question the true setting of the play.

Once again, Triad Stage brings brilliance to the production through the use of a skilled scenic designer. Tony Award-nominated Alexander Dodge brings the roughness of Harlem to audiences by creating a small, rusting apartment, complete with stained, broken tiles and a door locked down with half a dozen locks.

A working kitchen on stage, complete with an operable coffee pot, stove and refrigerator, adds to audience’s senses and makes them feel more a part of Black and White’s conversation. As Black makes coffee and warms leftovers, the audience is able to see the water steam and smell the aromas as if they are watching the dialogue from a nearby living room or third chair at the table.

By suspending a wall of windows around the set, Dodge builds the outside world around the stage. Each window has a soft light that randomly switches from on or off throughout the performance. The windows represent the ongoing lives of surrounding Harlem residents, setting the stage in a sense of reality. However, as the dialogue draws to a conclusion and at the height of hope, every window glows with bright light, reflecting the play’s crossover from reality to perhaps an inexplicable spiritual experience.

In the end, audiences are left with many questions but not unfulfilled.

wanna go?

Triad Stage’s production of The Sunset Limited runs until March 6. All performances are at the Pyrle Theater, 232 S. Elm St. Ticket prices run from $10 to $42. Pay-what-you-can performance is on Wednesday, Feb. 23. For tickets or more information call 336.272.0160 or visit www.