In theory, The Sunset Limited is an excellent choice for a reader's theater production. There's but one set, a grim tenement apartment bereft of anything but a table, cot, stove and refrigerator; there is no action, only dialogue; and all of said dialogue is written by Cormac McCarthy, which means the sentences are straight razors of flickering aspect, as capable of scribing sharply limned images as of slicing unerringly to the very heart of darkness. And as there are only two characters, Black (Archie Coleman) and White (Bob Harvey) to wield these razors, The Sunset Limited is a focused and economical package. And for most of the evening, Soundstage Productions' "reader's theatre on steroids" version (more on this later) proves that McCarthy's language and actors with good voices are all that is vital for a strong production of this play; it is only in the dying moments that something goes wrong with the theory, and makes one long for a fully staged and fully realized Sunset.
The plot is simple: White is a college professor who leaped in front of the express train The Sunset Limited intending to kill himself but instead found himself in the arms of Black, an ex-convict who has found God and now aids the junkies and homeless of New York. Black sees White as another lost soul in need of saving, and so he brings White to his apartment and attempts to talk him out of suicide.
The stage has four music stands, two with seats for the actors. Behind them, projected images of a grungy apartment, a Bible and the occasional snatch of dialogue from the play serve as "the steroids" for this reader's theater, directed by David Houghton. The idea is to approach the show like a radio play, wherein the voices of the actors and the images help you picture the setting in a manner far more detailed than any set could.
With no physical action other than Coleman and Harvey reading behind music stands and the periodic lateral move to a different stand, I drifted off once or twice, lost in McCarthy's language, but not to sleep or distraction. When Harvey argues with smug satisfaction that "There is no ministry in Hell," implying that even God gives up at some point, I pictured my old friend Mark, a former child preacher whose fundamentalist parents killed each other in the kitchen with him as witness. The brain functions on many levels, finding relationships and making connections even while you're preoccupied.
Even constrained to using only their voices, both men create a sense of their characters. Harvey has a needling quality to his voice, and White's highly intellectualized approach to life comes out as an almost-patronizing tone that grates. Coleman gives Black a sonorous, languid quality, warmth and compassion that turns cloying as he and White argue round and round with neither man making headway against the other's belief or lack thereof. But an ultimate answer is not the point. The debate of life versus death is the star attraction here.
And yet when White has had enough arguing and makes his escape, both Coleman and Harvey step out from behind the music stands and the show expands gloriously into a play. Harvey places a hand on Coleman tenderly as he bids him goodbye, and Coleman's eyes well with tears. Alone Coleman confronts God from his knees, lamenting his own failure, a solitary figure in gathering darkness — it's visceral and worthy of McCarthy's desolate ending. And it undermines the static, low-key approach of the preceding 90 minutes, and you wish you could see it again with Coleman and Harvey reprising their roles as full-fledged actors, not just readers.