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Review: 'The Sunset Limited' at Rubicon Theatre is crisp, effective

As if transforming philosophical debate into a high-stakes drama wasn't enough theatrical alchemy, Cormac McCarthy’s riveting two-hander, “The Sunset Limited,” at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre eloquently frames the age-old faith versus reason conflict in crisp, resonant terms that shun familiar clichéd arguments — this is no country for old stereotypes.

In a squalid Harlem tenement, a suicidal, atheistic college professor (Joe Spano) squares off against the ex-con-turned-preacher (Tucker Smallwood) who rescued him from leaping into the path of the poetically named subway train referenced in the play’s title.

Reprising his role from the terrific 2010 Rogue Machine production, Smallwood’s Black radiates perfectly inflected soulful dignity and folksy charm as he tries to induce a change of heart in his captive houseguest.

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Countering his rescuer’s street smarts and religious zeal with fiercely articulate cynicism, Spano’s White is by turns sullen, prickly and grudgingly appreciative of Black’s persistence and generosity. Will it be enough to pull White back from the intellectual corner of futility into which he’s painted himself?

Though McCarthy set up the characters as stark polar opposites, he scripted their debate with impressive subtlety — their arguments are as persuasive and cogent as they can be given their respective assumptions about the world. Director Brian McDonald invests their confrontation with particular urgency and relevance — as it should be, given the fundamental existential dilemma at its core.

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“The Sunset Limited,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 17. $39 to $49. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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