The Sunset Limited, a dramatic novel by Cormac McCarthy (author of The Road and No Country for Old Men, both adapted into feature films), is the story of Black and White (the two characters’s actual names are never revealed). White attempts to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of the Sunset Limited, the train linking Louisiana to California, and Black saves his life and brings him back to her bed-sit where their conversation forms the whole content of the play.
Sophie Ablett and Sam Ereira, Black and White respectively, indicating their skin colour and the social divides deriving from it, create a compelling dynamic through their conversation. At first Black has the upper hand as she quizzes White on the reasoning behind his suicide attempt, and tries to share her religious faith with him. White is a professor and an atheist, and his depression and despair are clear with lines such as “You see what it is you’ve saved!” and “It sickens me to see myself in others.” Ereira’s portrayal of a man on the brink of suicide is convincing and deeply moving. Ablett’s mastery of the deep Southern accent is impressive and unfaltering, and its contrast with Ereira’s smoother accent indicates the class divide and reflects their totally opposite lives, confronting here in the stifling atmosphere of the apartment. White, overwhelmed and irritated by Black’s complete confidence in God and life, attempts to leave at several intervals during the play, and Black stops him, saying she will accompany him to his apartment. Her unfaltering care is explained when she reveals that she helps drunks and crack addicts regularly. She assures White that he “wants what everyone wants, wants to be loved by God.”
The conversation moves in circles, sometimes frustratingly so, but the actors deal with the intensity of the script so well that the over-arching themes come through and the dynamic of the relationship is always clear. Gradually White takes the upper hand from Black, and his professorial arrogance comes out as he flat-out denies Black’s faith, and the strength of Ereira’s explosive performance at the end is such that it noticeably shakes Black’s faith. “I don’t want God’s love”, he shouts, and the door of the bed-sit, as he’s about to exit, becomes symbolic: “Who is out there? I want to rush to nuzzle his bony cheek!”. Ablett makes a great show of Black’s despair, now that the tables have turned and White has exited to his faithless world. The theme of language, running through the play, is picked up again at the end when she confronts God and asks him why he “didn’t give her the words” to convince White.
An intense, confrontational conversation is well played out by the two talented actors, and the stifling space of the apartment is turned into an area of intellectual and cultural exchange. Ablett and Ereira are fascinating to watch, and though the play is necessarily a bit static, the acting makes the most of the space. The Sunset Limited will be showing from Monday to Thursday, at 11 in the morning (for this is the time the action takes place), at the Michael Pilch Studio, on Jowett Walk. The incentive of brunch included with the ticket should not be needed to convince you all to go and watch this new, rare American gem on the Oxford theatre scene.