Three cheers for gloom

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Somehow it seems inevitable that I must address the Gleeks phenomenon in a blog, since the deluge of Facebook posts and Twitteration, at maniacal levels all spring long, must inevitably ramp back up as Glee enters its second season. I believe it’s best to hold fire on this peppy, preppy phenomenon until Kristin Chenoweth, Britney Spears, and assorted studs and fillies reach full gallop.

But if this sugary Mamma Mia! springtime mood presaged a giddy syrupy summer for Charlotte entertainment, local theater groups have surprised us with a sober balance. Sure, there has been a healthy ration of lighthearted, lightweight fare, your fizzy Comedy of Errors, Five Course Love, Barefoot in the Park, Drowsy Chaperone, and The American Trailer Park Musical. The big cherry on top of that, a visit from Mary Poppins, arrives later this month, direct from Disney.

Meanwhile, we’ve had more than a fair share of exotic flavors. Early in the season, we sampled the sci-fi smorgasbord of Ice Fishing on Europa, but there were still the anti-fairytales of Into the Woods, the immigrant mindset of Real Women Have Curves, and the absurdist phastasmagoria of ThomThom (If That Bird Don’t Sing) gently mocking To Kill a Mockingbird – on its 50th anniversary!

Darker than those, we’ve had the murderous ambition of Macbeth from Shakespeare Carolina and the hyper-passionate undoing of Othello from Collaborative Arts, with both companies in peak form. Across the hall from Othello at Spirit Square in Duke Energy Theatre, but sadly not lingering with the Moor into this weekend, 3M Productions broke onto the local scene with the gloomiest piece of the season, Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited.

The sunset in the title has no connection with night falling beyond the Pacific shore or the rim of the Grand Canyon. No, this is death, specifically the train that White has intended to leap in front of before Black thwarted his suicide attempt. We find the two men in a ratty, quintuple-locked apartment where Black spends his days futilely attempting to save his impoverished neighbors from drugs and violence with the riches of religious consolation.

White is no more grateful for Black’s intercession than the winos they step over on their way to his heavily shackled front door. White is hellbent on ending his life, and Black is determined to save it – to the point of holding onto the key that would enable White to escape to the train we hear periodically rumbling nearby.

There are clear parallels between the Black-White confrontation and the mother-daughter dialogue of Marsha Norman’s ‘Night, Mother – and the clash of opposites in the Lincoln-Booth dialectic of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog. We had a very fine ‘Night, Mother from Charlotte Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte in 1988, and while the Broadway revival of 2004, starring Edie Falco, wasn’t nearly as good, the chance to see that kind of a two-hander again wasn’t exactly enticing. Affirming the right of an overweight, undersexed epileptic to choose her own death isn’t my idea of tragic catharsis.

Sunset is a loftier work with a more intellectual debate. Jessie, the daughter of ‘Night, Mother, maintained that she was worthless. White finds life itself meaningless and distasteful, not worth living. The personal polarity between ex-con Black and Professor White is more akin to Parks’s Lincoln-Booth brothers. Black found Jesus while he was serving time for murder – actually maintains that Jesus found and spoke to him – while White is steadfast in his atheism. Mostly a novelist by trade, McCarthy isn’t as resourceful as Norman or Parks might be in keeping his suicide train from going round in oratorical circles. The fine direction from Robert Lutfy helped ease us past the tedium.

There are some nice human touches in the script amid Black’s desperate effort to save somebody in this hellhole and White’s struggle to justify his choice and break out of his confinement to act on it. Black serves up some chow to his guest, and White unexpectedly finds it delicious. The black and white coffee cups were also an amusing touch. But Black didn’t jump on his “O taste and see” opportunity to argue that life really is worth experiencing and discovering. He isn’t a hedonist, and as he candidly admits, he isn’t as bright as his adversary.

Tom Ollis, with a long stretch of visceral, physical performances stretching back to Sam Shepard’s True West, found a new level of controlled power as White. You could see it from the outset, where he didn’t seethe with frustration after his failed suicide but instead sat limply gazing straight ahead at a humiliating future. His explosion of existential rage at the end of act two was all the more devastating for being held so long in check.

3M definitely has a winner in Lutfy if the director can have such a profound effect on Ollis’s typical balls-to-the-walls approach. I could list some other actors around town in need of such helpful maturation. With a little hair coloration backstage necessary to add some years, Jacobi Howard wasn’t ideally cast as Black, but he gave a wonderfully nuanced performance that combined the born-again murderer’s homespun, hard-bitten, and evangelical qualities. He’s been off my radar since 2004, but if Howard is integral to 3M’s future plans, we are in for some nifty theater down the road, especially if Lutfy’s hand is on the tiller.

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