Is it just me, or is a spirited debate over whether life is worth living uniquely exhilarating? Questions don’t get any more basic or meaningful, and while despair has the edge on an intellectual level, hope wins out emotionally every time. It has to. Otherwise we might as well throw ourselves in front of a train — which is the grim choice made by one of the two characters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, playing through November 17 at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre.
In this story, a middle-aged white academic (he goes by the nickname “the professor,” although his field of study is unclear), is saved at the last second by a black ex-con who has found Jesus and devoted his life to saving others — or at least trying his best to do so. As the two men sit in his dingy apartment, drinking coffee and trading barbs, the ever-hopeful Christian admits his track record, in terms of getting people to see the light, is pretty poor. This day isn’t shaping up to be any better: The professor, a diagnosed depressive who loathes humanity and has lost the solace he once took from culture, seems beyond saving.
As the two men talk, the ex-con pulls out every trick he knows, displaying a sharp and flexible mind as he tells stories of his days in prison and suggests the professor find a community he can feel a part of — even if it’s the community of suicidally depressed people. Refreshingly un-dogmatic, he seems to be getting the better of the argument, until the professor embarks on a scathing monologue reminding him of the inevitability of death (not only our own, but everyone we love) and describing our quest for meaning as childish and futile. Like a gripping courtroom drama, only with much higher stakes, you’ll likely find your allegiance swinging back and forth, from one man to the other.
Their 100-minute-long standoff is powerful, thoughtful, and eloquent. In the steady hands of director Brian McDonald, it’s also taut and emotionally charged. McDonald keeps things simple, trusting the script and his two superb actors, Tucker Smallwood and Joe Spano. And that trust is warranted. Edgy and agitated, Spano effectively portrays a smart man at the end of his rope; this guy may have lost faith in humanity, but he still enjoys a well-matched intellectual joust.
However, it’s Smallwood who dominates the stage. Alternately relaxed and wound-up, sharp and tender — whatever it takes to get his message across — he gives a remarkably rich portrayal of a man on a mission. Surprisingly, at the end, your heart aches more for his character than for Spano’s. Spano, after all, has no God; Smallwood, on the other hand, wonders why his deity has forsaken him.