'Sunset' Delves Into Theology And Race at SF Playhouse

Photo: Lofty discourse. Carl Lumbly and Charles Dean star in the West Coast premiere of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Sunset Limited' at SF Playhouse.
Jessica Palopoli/Staff
Lofty discourse. Carl Lumbly and Charles Dean star in the West Coast premiere of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Sunset Limited' at SF Playhouse.

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In this enlightened, secular world of ours, it seems almost improper to talk about spirituality. The kinds of people we see talking about God are those wingnuts waving gruesome images of bloody fetuses and screaming at pregnant teenagers outside Planned Parenthoods. Or worse, they're those shifty-looking fellows trying to get through airport security with bombs hidden away in their shoes and skivvies. Or they might be those buzzkill atheists who torpedo every dinner party they attend by making sure every other guest wakes up to the incontrovertible fact that God is a lie. Polite people avoid discussing religion if they can help it. It's a delicate subject best kept private.

If you shy away from religious matters, Cormac McCarthy's "The Sunset Limited," currently making its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse, is liable to make you squirm with discomfort. It unapologetically explores the question of God, a subject modern art tends to treat only obliquely when not avoiding it altogether. The entirety of the play depicts two men in a cramped Manhattan apartment debating God's existence for 100 minutes. That's it.

McCarthy pits White against Black, literally. He names the otherwise nameless characters according to their respective races. The two engage in a spiritual chess match on par with Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor." White, played by Charles Dean, is an elderly depressive and vehement atheist professor. Black, played by Carl Lumbly, is a loquacious, hospitable southerner who possesses a criminal record and a thumb-worn copy of the Bible.

Their paths cross on a subway platform. Black is heading to work; White has graver motives. After Black stops White from throwing himself in front of the rapidly approaching Sunset Limited, he brings the would-be suicide back to his dilapidated uptown apartment, at which point the play begins.

If this all sounds incredibly austere and serious, it is - but it's also warm and humorous. Lumbly and Dean bring a fleshy humanity to their characters. Dean's stiff upper lip and constant thumb-twiddling lend the tragic professor some much-needed sympathy. Lumbly plays the jovial Southern sidewalk preacher pitch-perfectly, but complicates this familiar character with unexpected philosophical angles.

Though Lumbly and Dean each turn in great performances, the real star of this play is the play itself. McCarthy's "novel in dramatic form" is both modern and biblical. His ornate dialogue can sound at turns crude and Shakespearean. His characteristic obsession with violence manifests itself here only in stories related by the characters - but McCarthy's writing is so powerful that it strikes a deep nerve without any gruesome visual imagery on display.

As with its insistent discussion of God, the play's treatment of race will likely make many theatergoers squeamish. White is portrayed as highly educated and articulate. Black seems stuck in a servile position, busying himself throughout the play by preparing coffee and food for White. McCarthy employs the n-word freely. Black's characterization flirts dangerously close to the Morgan Freeman-esque magical Negro. But these characters aren't so much stereotypes as they are archetypes - they represent the ongoing battle between believer and non-believer. Intensity boils and seethes until each character becomes entirely divorced from their individual quirks, turning into competing psycho-spiritual states of mind.

Doubt versus faith. Community versus isolation. Afterlife versus absolute death. Even if the actors or McCarthy or SF Playhouse offend our usual sense of propriety when it comes to discussing God, all should be commended for being bold enough to grapple so eloquently with these timeless problems.

One of the play's distinguishing features is how the two characters, at once so different and so similar, mimic each other. Whether they're taking a sip of coffee simultaneously, pursing their lips tightly when the debate gets heated or rephrasing each others' answers as questions, mimicry creates a thread between the two, reminding us that beliefs, race and social status aside, we all equally need to come to terms with the same unanswerable questions.

Talk about God and other heavy topics with David at [email protected]

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