On stage: Strong performances make 'The Sunset Limited' click

For the News-DemocratAugust 14, 2013 

Director Ryan Foizey is a local professional actor who dreams big. His passion for theater is obvious, as he has launched a new troupe, Theatre Lab, a company suited for actors with big ideas, too.

It's fitting that his first venture is "The Sunset Limited," an impassioned debate about the meaning of life written by Cormac McCarthy ("The Road"). Foizey has deftly staged it on the intimate black box Gaslight Theatre, guiding two seasoned pros to challenge the way we view the world in riveting performances.

Zachary Allen Farmer, seen often in New Line Theatre's unconventional musicals, is a dour intellectual and atheist whose despair about the human condition has led him to choose suicide, only to be thwarted from his jump in front of the Sunset Limited passenger train. The savior, an ex-convict and evangelical Christian, is played with fierce emotional conviction by Robert Alan Mitchell, a veteran of the Black Repertory Theatre and founder of the NonProphet Theatre.

The characters are known only as White and Black, and their dialogue crackles as they go deep about the gray areas of life. These two men find nuances in McCarthy's prose, as they wrestle with the choices they've made and accept how different they look at life. Arguing, pleading, helping, unveiling experiences in their past -- it's all part of deceptively basic storytelling.

Farmer's character, by virtue of his depressed state, has a gloomier perspective, and there isn't an opportunity for much range. He aptly displays the college professor's ill-at-ease manner, his palpable melancholy, and his smarts. He is restless, not content with his life, but feels obligated, to a certain extent, by his rescuer's inherent decency.

Mitchell's character has a wider arc and the showier role -- and he's mesmerizing on stage, giving one of the more powerful portrayals of the year to date. (This is his last St. Louis performance, as he is moving to New Orleans). Black is a man who is at peace with his past and remains hopeful about the future. But can he convert someone so reluctant to his viewpoint?

The static nature of two guys playing cards, eating, and talking could make this show claustrophic, but Foizey moves them around in an authentic manner. The setting, a shabby apartment in a dicey neighborhood, has interesting details.

Lest you think it is all gloom and doom, on the contrary; there are welcome -- albeit brief -- bits of comic relief. But mostly, we grasp these words on faith, hope, despair and humanity. The play's construction doesn't have one side win over the other -- allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.

For those who love words, and fine acting, "The Sunset Limited" is a worthy way to spend 90 minutes (with no intermission), especially at such a fervent inaugural effort.

What: "The Sunset Limited"

Who: The Theatre Lab

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Where: Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle St., St. Louis (CWE)

Tickets: $14. Box office or www.brownpapertickets.com

Information: www.facebook.com/TheatreLabSTL

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