BWW Review: ANNAPURNA Unpacks Baggage to Tidy Old Messes
There are defining moments in every life that change a person's entire trajectory. Sometimes we recognize them as such. Other times, we never recognize them at all, or maybe worse, we recognize them too late. Annapurna, a tender but unsettling 2013 two-hander play by Sharr White asks, among other questions, what might have been had one of those defining moments turned out differently.
When Emma (Laurie McConnell) shows up out-of-the-blue after two decades with baggage (lots and lots of baggage) at Ulysses' (John Pierson) ramshackle mobile home in Paonia, Colorado, it is because she has just left her current husband. Emma finds Ulysses-her alcoholic ex and the father of her only child-has become an "accidental nudist" out here in the "ass-crack of the Rockies." Along with the almost-nothing Ulysses is wearing, he sports a portable breathing apparatus, necessary because of the advanced lung cancer, which has him in a recognizably declined state of health. He owns little more than the five pounds of bad meat in his mini fridge, is behind on all his bills, and has decided to just coexist with all the ants and roaches, as he can't keep up with the place. All of it is a far cry from the esteemed professor and successfully published author their now-grown son imagines Ulysses to be. By the way, that son, Emma claims, is on his way here to meet Ulysses after finding 15 years' worth of letters Ulysses wrote to him. Emma, with that baggage full of cash she seems willing to share, has no solid plan for the future, but she couldn't just not show up when she received the news that Ulysses was dying. What follows is a mental wrestling match between two intellectuals who have fallen on hard times - a beautiful disaster that revisits the old secrets and tragedies that drove the two (who clearly still love one another) apart.
McConnell and Pierson are stellar in these roles, able to draw in their audience for a rollercoaster of intense emotional work that surely leaves them exhausted at the end of a performance. The hostility with which they interact is as strong as the gentleness, and their ability to shift between the two while also making the audience laugh is to be admired and celebrated. The grimy wood walls and brown curtains in Patrick Huber's naturalistic set design go a long way in rendering the depth of hopelessness in this place. Jenny Smith's prop design is similarly effective, making choices that reveal character among the many haphazard piles of clutter and filth. Kayla Dressman's costumes are thoughtfully age-, style-, and region-appropriate. Patrick Huber and Steven J. Miller's lighting design is cleverly used in the beginning to guide an audience to understand the nature of this relationship and the tone of the play. Jeff Roberts' sound design aptly communicates both the poignancy and humor.
The script itself has a few plot holes that are messy and difficult to reconcile, however, life is a lot like that, so perhaps intentional. After the climax, which has the potential to be quite a lot more heightened, White's characters are left mostly unchanged, perhaps also a deliberate (but not conventional) structure. The dialogue is razor-sharp and poetic, too; the characters wholly believable and emotionally complex. The play does run for more than an hour and a half without an intermission, so if you grab a drink next door before the show, be advised! All said, it is a production that will make you feel something, and likely you'll also wonder what if . . ..
Annapurna, directed by St. Louis Actors' Studio's Associate Artistic Director, Annamaria Pileggi, plays through March 1 at The Gaslight Theater. It is a story of escaping and of recovery and of epic moving words that (almost) never hit their intended mark. It is about paths taken and choices made that are not easily reversed. And it is about the ways people punish one another in an effort to protect themselves. For tickets and more information, http://stlas.org/.