Annapurna by Sharr White. Directed by Robert Egan. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
""Do you really think I came here for you?"
Daniel Riordan and Michelle Joyner; photo: Rick Teller
When a woman and a man love one another through the mediums of poetry, sex and intelligence they can never be apart. For Emma, whose cowboy-poet teacher and mentor Ulysses has been at the center of her yearning since the day they met and the night they parted, these elements protect the relationship that staggered, faltered and fell apart as much through her anger as through his failings. Their child has been injured and permanently impaired by the circumstances and Emma has never understood what happened and Uly has never known what he might have done.
Sharr White, the author of other plays of staggering mystery, has created these people for his play "Annapurna" now running on the Chester Theater stage in Chester, MA. This seems to be a constant question for the playwright. . .what really did happen and how has it actually affected the central character? In the case of this play the central character, Sam, never appears and is only referred to during a handful of verbal confrontations. Sam, now 25 years old, hates his mother, is deaf in one ear, is the child of some sort of abuse from which Emma believes she rescued the boy 20 years earlier, is the probable victim of an automobile accident, is distant and most probably on his way to find Uly, who has not seen his son in all these years.
In addition Emma has left an abusive husband - yet again. Also, Ulysses is suffering from a cancer that is threatening to take his life within days or weeks. Beside that, he has written an epic poem called "Annapurna" in which he takes his idolized ex-wife Emma to grandiose heights as a symbol of the best in the world. Emma has sought him out to get her hands on his work which she intends to edit and publish.
Are you confused yet? I was and still am and this is a stock-in-trade aspect of White's writing. In "The Other Place," seen earlier this season at another theater he presented a woman whose work in the medical specialty of memory loss is best represented in her own losses. Here he introduces a couple whose own losses can only be summed up in a single word : huh? Neither one can truly recall the details of the losses they suffered most. His car accident is a recounted blur that makes no sense and her discovery of a battered child has no rhyme nor reason. Are they the same thing from two different points of view? Are they not connected at all? There is no easy answer and each member of the audience is free to comprehend as much or as little as he or she may be able to pull from the dialogue.
What is clear is the enormous talents of the cast and director. Director Robert Egan has used the limited space within a densely packed trailer to great advantage as he moves his two characters around, bringing them closer physically as they grow further apart emotionally and then reversing this situation over and over again. He has clearly been a clearing-house eye as his actors created their alter-egos and his input has helped them stay focused on the realities of their vague presences. It is a master's touch that has allowed him to help create two of the most riveting people on American stages today.
His own wife, Michelle Joyner, brings an unusual easiness to a character who only reveals her inner self when pushed to it by circumstances. This actress can be totally surface in her playing while revealing those idealistic bits she so carefully hides one tiny bite at a time. She is a mistress of emotional manipulation as she moves from catlike tread to Godzilla stomp in a single breath. When she is in love, we feel the love wafting across the footlights (if there were footlights, that is).
The object of her disaffection, Ulysses, is played by Joiner's closest friend in the theater, Daniel Riordan. Perhaps it is their old, close friendship that makes both of them so comfortable together in this odd relationship. Riordan's character is on oxygen throughout the play as his sickness threatens him time and again with wracking coughs and laryngeal dificulties. His years of alcoholism play across his face and shoulders and hands. His cancer grows within him as we watch and its effects are devastating.
For all three it is the ageless relationship that keeps them on track in this play, although to define that actual track is hard. Loving, torturous interactions dominate the work with both aspects exacting their loyalties. This is theater of the tough and faint-hearted souls should come braced for startling realities.
The symbolist realism of the set designed by Vicki R. Davis is wonderful for this play. The costumes, including near-nudity, by Charles Schoonmaker are perfect for these people. Lara Dubin's subtle lighting works as well in the quick vignettes of the opening as it does in the gradual disintegration of details later in the play.
I am not certain I understand much of the play but I am much touched by it and by its characters' joint need to understand the actions of each other's remote past. This is a play to be talked about, discussed for a long time in hopes that actual answers will emerge. If they don't, well, celebrate the cerebral stimulous provided by "Annapurna."
Daniel Riordan and Michelle Joyner; photo: Rick Teller
Annapurna plays on the Chester Theater Company mainstage, located at 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA through July 20. For information or tickets call the box office at 413-354-7770 or go on line at www.chestertheatre.org.