Review by Sean McQuaid
Two McFaddens enter, one leaves. Not as grimly gladiatorial as it sounds, but still an accurate summary of the spectacle on offer at The Guild this January, where accomplished father-son acting duo William and Corin McFadden starred in AMS Entertainment’s production of The Sunset Limited, directed by Mahdi Selseleh.
Written by acclaimed long-time novelist and infrequent playwright Cormac McCarthy in 2006, The Sunset Limited is a verbally playful yet emotionally bleak two-hander featuring a spirited, spiritual debate between a pair of unidentified strangers, a suicidal intellectual (played here by William “Bill” McFadden) and a working class, born-again Christian ex-con (Corin McFadden) who prevents him from leaping in front of the titular Sunset Limited train.
Dubbed “White” and “Black” in the McCarthy script (echoing the skin colours of the play’s 2006 original cast), the characters debate the meaning of life (or lack thereof) and the ethics of exiting same, with Black Corin trying to keep White Bill in his dingy apartment long enough to talk Bill out of his death wish.
It’s not the feel-good play of the millennium. McCarthy’s “White” is like the dour humanoid antithesis of those “Hang in there, baby” motivational kitten posters, a despairing bundle of nihilistic bon mots who says life’s only redeeming feature is its inevitable end, a consummation he wishes for devoutly and eloquently.
The script’s undeniable pleasures, however, include the wry comic chemistry of McCarthy’s Black-and-White dialogue, with some laudably luminous turns of phrase amidst the all-consuming darkness. This play is nearly two hours of two guys arguing about death, but it’s engaging, thought-provoking, even entertaining for most of that span. This isn’t conceptually ground-breaking — self-destructively depressed smarty-pants antiheroes have been theatrical staples since Hamlet — but McCarthy’s words sell it.
The McFadden duo don’t always seem sure of those words — Bill even spends much of the play sequentially browsing a multi-page document apparently unrelated to the action, as if consulting notes or a script — but the emotional content of the performance is mostly on point. Bill brings a gravelly, bone-weary gravitas to his part that fits his role snugly while Corin’s prickly energy helps keep things moving and generates some of the play’s more memorable moments.
That energy can be a double-edged sword — for instance, Corin’s take on his character feels oddly hostile in spots given Black’s benevolent intentions — but that may be a directorial issue as much as an acting one. There are some odd choices here, like Bill shouting a line about whispering where quiet intensity might have worked better, though such considerations are admittedly subjective.
Director Selseleh handles this dark play capably. The simple set is sufficient to evoke Black’s shabby apartment, the mostly well-deployed music and sound effects help cement both mood and setting, and some suitably stark, elegantly simple graphics used in the play’s promos as well as an opening screen projection set an aptly ominous tone.
Some acting oddities make it a bumpy ride in spots, but the script is smart enough, the McFaddens’ overall performances are strong enough and the production as a whole solid enough that assorted obstacles never quite derail The Sunset Limited.