Shades of gray

The Sunset Limited

James Wheatley (left) and Ed Claudio with expert performances in <i>The Sunset Limited</i>.

James Wheatley (left) and Ed Claudio with expert performances in The Sunset Limited.

The Sunset Limited, 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; $15-$17. Actor’s Theatre of Sacramento at the Three Penny Theatre, 1723 25th Street in the California Stage complex; (916) 501-6104; Through November 18.

Three Penny Theatre

1723 25th St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 451-5822

Rated 4.0

Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 play The Sunset Limited has no coin-flipping hit man or post-apocalyptic cannibals, but in this production by the Actor’s Workshop of Sacramento, it benefits from a couple of major advantages: Ed Claudio and James Wheatley. The two local master actors face off against each other in this existential play of ideas, and despite it being—rightly so—a play that critics have found entirely too tied to dialogue, they make it as lively as its subject: life itself.

Claudio plays White, a college professor and avowed atheist. Wheatley is Black, an ex-convict-turned-evangelical Christian. The entire play takes place in Black’s small, Spartan apartment, as the two wrangle their way around the meaning—or lack thereof—of life.

Did I mention that immediately before the play began, White had attempted to kill himself by jumping in front of the Sunset Limited train?

That puts a bit of pressure on the discussion, and it’s as well-played as one would expect from these two, who were both recipients of Lifetime Achievement Awards at the annual Elly Awards Ceremony, sponsored by the Sacramento Area Regional Theatre Alliance a few weeks ago.

Claudio and Wheatley give masterful performances, as one would expect. Director Mark Heckman must surely have delighted in working with them, as they bring a natural quality to the conflict.

The Sunset Limited does suffer, however, from an excess of talkiness that is only rescued by the talent that Claudio and Wheatley bring to the—quite literal—table. The deep ideas are much better handled when the two actors are illustrating them with narratives about their character’s lives or with a dash of humor. In fact, what happens here is that the quality of the performances serves to reveal the flaws in the play quite clearly.

And, like all of McCarthy’s work, The Sunset Limited play revels in moral ambiguity: It takes a high caliber of acting to do that sort of role justice. In this particular case, justice is served.