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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

"The Sunset Limited" has two more shows, one tonight at 7 p.m. and another on Thursday, March 20.

"The Sunset Limited" is a journey into the world of smart people

It's a rare thing when you can walk out of a play and think that you are one of the smart people in this world. But that's how I felt after seeing "The Sunset Limited," which opened Thursday night at Next Act Theatre.

I'm a very normal and average guy when it comes to intelligence. My Mensa card never showed up in the mail, and I even had trouble spelling SAT when I took the test.

But thanks to renowned author/playwright Cormac McCarthy and riveting performances from Jim Pickering and Marti Gobel, I was admitted to the rarefied air of the really smart guys and girls for around two hours Thursday night.

The production, staged by Uprooted Theatre, is about two characters, one named Black (Gobel) and one named White (Pickering). Black has rescued White from throwing himself in front of a commuter train called the Sunset Limited.

They drag back to Black's humble apartment, sit at chairs in a spare kitchen and begin to do battle with words so precise and loaded that the intelligence drips from them and lands on the heads of the audience members.

Suddenly, without really thinking about it, Gobel and Pickering sailed a ship that carried all of us in the audience to the tiny harbor where smart people frolic.

Black is an ex-con who has found God, and has a touching and fervent belief in the Bible.

White, on the other hand, is a cynical atheist college professor for whom his lengthy disappointment in all of life has finally spilled over, driving him to dive in front of a train traveling 80 miles per hour.

The debate, told without any distraction, is the age-old one of faith versus reason. Who has it right? Does anyone have it right?

McCarthy creates subtle arguments on both sides and gives his actors plenty of room to cringe, challenge, explain and try to convince.

And it is during that interplay that I found myself deep in thought. I wasn't just watching a play. I was a full participant in the debate, wondering about both arguments and buying into one here, another one there. It was an intellectual experience that made me feel like an intellectual.

White, ever the intransigent faithless, challenges Black about whether she hears Jesus speak to her and pontificates that, even if he listened for the word, he would not hear it.

"You don't have to listen," Black replies. "You just have to be quiet."

In the hands of Pickering and Gobel, two of the best actors in the entire Midwest, these words have a sparkle and depth that is almost unfathomable.

Gobel is spicy and pious, regaling Pickering with stories from her stay in prison and her constant dalliance with drug addicts and criminals. Her faith seems unassailable, and she wears it not just for protection but also as a sword to slice through the world of the faithless.

She has the black patois down cold and uses it to both offend and to seduce White out of his despair and hopelessness.

Pickering is the perfect, slightly frayed around the edges, college professor whose weary visage is a pathway to a soul filled with emptiness.

Although White is the heathen in this duo, you can't help but admire him for his profound belief in disbelief.

As he says, "The only thing I won't give up is giving up."

Uprooted Theatre is the only black-oriented theater company in Milwaukee, and they constantly struggle to get the word out about their work. This play, however, deserves to be seen by hundreds of people.

It's an amazing experience, one that will amaze you in how wonderful it is and perhaps make you proud of how smart you are ... even if just for a couple of hours.


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