By Karen Isaacs
Annapurna, the most recent Sharr White play which is now at TheaterWorks through Nov. 9, is a play I wish I liked more than I do.
White wrote the brilliant The Other Place that had a terrific production last year at TheaterWorks and The Snow Geese which I also enjoyed last year at the Manhattan Theater Club.
So why wasn’t I as taken with Annapurna? It may have to do with the two characters — Emma and Ulysses or it may be the heavy dose of symbolism that White includes in an effort, perhap, to add significance to the work.
Emma (Debra Jo Rupp) arrives at Ulysses’ ramshackle trailer high in the Colorado mountains unannounced. We quickly learn that they had been married and that she had taken their 5-year-old son and left, seemingly in the middle night, some 20 years ago. They have not seen each other since. Ulysses (Vasili Bogazianos) is a poet who has been an alcoholic and he is now dying of emphysema or some other lung problem (he uses portable oxygen). He is living an unconventional life that often does not include clothes.
So why did she come? It takes a long time to get to any reasonable answer to that question. In reality, it seems that both of their lives have not fulfilled their promise. He was a promising poet and English professor who has written only one poem in the last ten years. She settled for a stable but, you suspect dull man, who has failed — he did not get tenure as a community college English professor and the chain of dry cleaners that he started hse gone into bankruptcy because of new competition. Her son accuses her of “ruining his life” by estranging him from his father.
If we ask why did she come, Ulysses asks not only that question but why did she leave that night 20 years ago? He has no memory of the events of that day except waking up the next morning to find his wife and son gone. He even thought they might have been abducted.
Over the course of the 90 minute play, we learn a lot about these two, yet we do not necessarily find the answers to our questions. Yes, we learn more about their lives together and apart. We discover some of what happened to prompt her abrupt departure. We find out why her son now is so angry at her and that he is enroute to his father’s. We may even suspect why she has come to apparently nurse Ulysses through his final months.
But do we care? I wasn’t sure I did. Despite heroic efforts by Debra Jo Rupp as Emma and Vasili Bogazianos as Ulysses, these two characters did not truly engage me. Emma is just too perky, like an aging Doris Day. Plus she seems to have little understanding of her actions or the consequences of her actions. Ulysses is a stereotype of the sarcastic, angry recovering alcoholic artistic failure.
The playwright has also loaded the work with symbolism — from the name of the character, Ulysses, to the title of the play — which we find out at the end is the title of his last epic poem. Annapurna is the name of a series of peaks in Nepal that are dangerous to climb and have been the location of many fatalities. It is named for a Hindu goddess of the harvest and a mother figure who provides food.
Director Rob Ruggiero has done an excellent job with the cast and the production team. Set designer Evan Adamson has created a perfect set — a small trailer that looks both worn out and messy. It, like Ulysses is decaying in front of us.
Annapurna is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Nov. 9. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org.
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