Theater Review - The Sunset Limited, 100 Saints have soul

Two plays find similar callings on stage

Attending a play is like going to church. In each activity, people congregate to contemplate important yet intangible ideas like God and art while receiving appeals for financial support. Perhaps the most significant difference is that houses of worship claim to offer answers to life's problems, while the most thoughtful playhouses articulate the questions.

Whether through coincidence or divine intervention, several theater productions coincide with Lent and the Easter season, including straight-up faith-based shows such as the Atlanta Passion Play on March 27 and Georgia Shakespeare's repertory of The Gospel of John and Prophets. Theatrical Outfit's The Sunset Limited and Actor's Express' 100 Saints You Should Know opened the same weekend and address similar metaphysical concerns. Both plays feature nearly identical exchanges: A religious man describes the first time he heard the voice of God, and a skeptic asks whether it was out loud or what. 100 Saints could almost serve as The Sunset Limited's second act. The unintentional dialogue between the plays serves to enrich them both.

Bestselling novelist Cormac McCarthy, who specializes in spare allegorical narratives of men in nature such as No Country for Old Men and The Road, left familiar territory for The Sunset Limited. Pretentiously subtitled A novel in dramatic form, the play takes place in a New York apartment near a subway train. Theatrical Outfit's set makes the room look like it's practically on an underground platform.

The Sunset Limited begins just after an African-American ex-con (E. Roger Mitchell) rescues a white college professor (Peter Thomasson) from throwing himself in front of a subway train. "Black," a born-again Christian thanks to a jailhouse conversion, sees it as his calling to save "White." He informs the professor he'll follow him anywhere to keep him from committing suicide. The action unfolds as a dialectic: Black, in effect, attempts to talk White off the ledge and convince him life is worth living. White's nihilism runs deep, however. Black realizes that, rather than bring the lost soul into the light, White might drag him down into the darkness.

McCarthy peppers his meditations on big-picture ideas with deadpan banter. White asks about a guy in one of Black's anecdotes: "Was he killed?" Black replies, "I hope so. We buried him." The Sunset Limited amounts to a single, real-time conversation that could be numbingly dull in the wrong hands. When the men take a break from theological debate to eat some soul food, the discussion of ingredients offers a blessed relief. It also does more to argue Black's case for the value of life than any actual words. Director Jessica Phelps West rises to the challenge of such potentially static material by ensuring that the characters keep pressure on each other.

One of Atlanta's most charismatic and reliable actors, Mitchell provides a well-rounded characterization. He conveys Black's almost earthy gratification in his work, rather than being merely a plaster saint. His performance prevents the role from becoming a "magical negro," whose only purpose is to help a white person. Thomasson's bitter, evasive professor serves as the flip side of his performance as a priest last summer in Theatre in the Square's Savannah Disputation. Here, he uses his intellect to castigate himself and others rather than celebrate the faithful. White's misanthropy sounds a bit sophomoric, like a grad student who's suffered a bad breakup and read too much Dostoevsky, but The Sunset Limited builds to a resolution that can rock the audience's beliefs.

Kate Fodor's 100 Saints You Should Know works for a more hopeful message in a world with high potential for tragedy. The play takes place against the background of Catholic sex abuse scandals, although they aren't the focus. The first scene hints at the humanity of priests when Father Matthew (Doyle Reynolds) awkwardly encounters the rectory cleaning lady, Theresa (Carolyn Cook), as she scrubs the toilet: Priests have to go to the bathroom just like anybody.

Father Matthew spends an enigmatic leave of absence from his congregation at the home of his doting mother, Colleen (Sheila Allen), and clearly wrestles with a crisis of faith. Theresa has her own cross to bear as a former Deadhead and single mom struggling to raise her hostile daughter Abby (Rachel DeJulio). The play mostly takes place on a single night, when Theresa finds an excuse to visit Father Matthew, and Abby hangs out with a troubled but unthreatening local boy (Barrett Doyle). The first act drags, with Abby and Colleen coming across as stock character types Bitchy Teen and Winsome Irish Mother. Despite some funny interplay, the ideas and relationships develop at too deliberate a pace.

Directed by Susan Reid, 100 Saints You Should Know pays off in Act 2. Father Matthew, despite his pervasive doubts of faith and purpose, provides spiritual comfort to others. He unexpectedly finds a moment of grace amid a shocking accident. The play contains a critique of priestly celibacy, particularly when Father Matthew contemplates the idea that "Beauty is God's goodness made visible." During one quiet, tender exchange, a wave of emotions silently crosses the priest's face, summing up Father Matthew's longing better than any of the scripted words.

Theresa's hunger for answers echoes an idea from The Sunset Limited: Black suggests God is too busy to speak to anyone who's not prepared to listen. 100 Saints implies that, even for people who've had a calling, faith is a journey not a destination. In contrast, The Sunset Limited voices a counterargument to those who want to stop the world and get off.

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