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‘The Sunset Limited’ at Theatrical Outfit

2010 March 20

Peter Thomasson as White, E. Roger Mitchell as Black; Photo: Cristopher P. Kettrey

Cormac McCarthy’s play “The Sunset Limited” is now at Theatrical Outfit. I haven’t seen it yet, but it was first produced by one of my favorite theaters, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, in 2006 and later in the year moved to New York City.  McCarthy also wrote “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Crossing.”

I am not familiar with the work of the two actors starring in the show, but I am a big fan of actor Jessica Phelps West, who is directing the production.

West answered some questions about this two-character play via e-mail.

Plays with two characters sitting around talking are often really difficult to come alive on stage.  As a director, how do you ensure that a play with two characters and minimal action is something that is riveting to watch?

Well, actually, the playwright has done that for me. His words literally fly off the page into our minds and hearts. McCarthy’s words are active and thus “action” is not missed or even desired. I direct most plays as if they were a piece of music, and my focus is very kinetic, paying close attention to the physical movement of the actors as it correlates to the movement of the script and the relationships of the characters. In this case, the smallest of movements by the actors can speak volumes, and there is great power in stillness as well.

How do you make sure that these characters bring an element of surprise to their roles?

The actors are in command of the energy they contain and expend on the stage, heightening tension by containing their energy, and expending  energy by exploding it at the appropriate moment.

What is it about this play that compelled you to direct it and Theatrical Outfit to produce it?

I am most attracted to plays that are concerned with issues of faith and faiths of every kind. They seem to be the most relevant in these times and have the capability to speak to us as human beings on so many levels. McCarthy’s play evokes such strong passions of the mind and spirit for the reader and viewer as well as the characters, and the story is told with such incredible power in its simplicity.

What makes E. Roger Mitchell and Peter Thomasson the right actors for this play?

One of the major themes in the play is the opposing views of a given idea and belief system. McCarthy presents contrast in all aspects of the characters, especially in their polemic views. In casting, I looked for actors that would help to support this theme by their striking physical contrast. Peter is very analytical when he approaches a role, and Roger is very organic. Both approaches are perfect for their characters as Peter is playing the professor, who has arrived at his views of the world with great forethought, almost systematically. Roger plays a simple man of God who is far more instinctual. Normally their opposing approaches could be a challenge to a director in scene work, but I have found it quite helpful in exploring the play. They are both very adept at comedy as well, which helps us bring out the humor in the play.

What should Atlanta audiences expect to see in this production?

I think the ideas presented are universal and very personal at the same time. I hope the audience is moved by a theatrical experience that will stay with them long after the performance is over.  I hope, too, that we will all discover something about ourselves, specifically what sustains us and how to become aware of the traps we set for ourselves.

“Sunset Limited” runs through April 11 at Theatrical Outfit.

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