In a series of short blackouts that opens playwright Sharr White’s “Annapurna,” which is now running at Hartford’s Theaterworks through November 9, we meet the middle-aged frumpy owner of a disheveled trailer in the mountains of Colorado stark naked except for an apron and an oxygen tank on his back as he fries up some spoiled sausages to enjoy their smell. Pushing through the door comes a middle-aged woman dragging suitcases and carry-ons, clearly unexpected and unwelcome, jumping familiarly right into the midst of a conversation that seems to have ended years ago. And then there’s that loud, barking dog just outside the door, so frantic that the two characters can’t always hear what the other is saying.
This is how White, the author of last season’s mesmerizing family mystery, “The Other Place,” begins his newest work, an initially jarring, but ultimately tender comedy also about families, that similarly peels off layers of misunderstanding and deceptions to provide a heart-rendering look at two people with deep seated feelings that time, circumstance, tragedy and anger have served to submerge but not dispel.
“Annapurna” is not as mysterious as “The Other Place,” since White reveals the relationship between the man and the woman fairly quickly. Ulysses, as played bravely by a slightly overweight but eloquent Vasili Bogazianos, is a down and out poet who was formerly married to the talkative but tentative Emma, portrayed with the necessary mix of ebullience and caution by Debra Jo Rupp (last season’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth”). As they engage in generally humorous banter and the occasional sharp insult, we learn that Emma disappeared with their son one night 15 years ago and never attempted to contact Uly, as she calls him, in the interim. Uly claims, to Emma’s stubborn doubts, that he has no idea as to why she left and why she and his son never made any attempt to contact him in the subsequent years.
White, as he did in “The Other Place,” will dole out that information in fits and starts, but here it seems as though the revelations naturally grow out of the conversations between Uly and Emma. After all, they have 15 years of living to account for and not everything can spill out all at once, particularly since they are still regarding each other with some suspicion and, as we learn, some misunderstanding. Sharr also subtly hints at what their domestic life must have been like at one point, with Uly able to function as a star poet thanks to the support, concern, mothering and of his wife, and Emma enjoying shining in the glow of association with such a man whose literary intelligence she respected. How and why all that changed becomes the crux of the play, as we learn more about the son they share, the fears Ulysses encountered as he tried to match the sensation of his first book of poems and the choices that Emma, particularly in regard to relationships, has made.
The play turns out to be the perfect example of what we now refer to as a “dramedy,”–that genuine mix of comedy and drama, that Rob Ruggiero, the play’s director and Theaterworks’ Producing Artistic Director, balances so well in this production. Both Bogazianos and Rupp demonstrate their well-tuned comic chops throughout the one-act 90-minute show, bobbing back and forth witticisms that reveal their characters’ well-tuned intellectual minds. At the same time, they each make the more serious moments quite poignant and touching, particularly as their characters progress from the mutually annoying banterers of the opening scenes to revealing their struggles and disappointments in the interim. Wisely, White has incorporated a deadline into the plot that will require some resolution between the Emma and Uly before an unseen third character is expected to arrive on the scene in the near future which adds just the slightest suggestion of urgency to their actions.
Another key element of the play is Evan Adamson’s set, a realistically detailed interior of a messy, unkempt trailer with piles of clothes strewn across the floor and under the unmade bed, with dirty dishes and mugs piling up along the messy counters and swollen boxes hide unhappily squeezed beneath the bed. Even with a panorama of the Rockies visible outside the door and windows of the trailer, Adamson has done a great job of recreating the claustrophobic atmosphere of the dwelling where Uly has exiled himself. Amy Clark has provided some distinctive underwear as well as some street clothes with a definite lived-in look for the two characters, and John Lasiter’s lighting effectively captures the progress of the day, hinting at the uncomfortable heat of the afternoons and quieter chill of the evening.
Ruggiero has garnered outstanding performances from his two leads, while making their eccentricities believable and finally endearing. While Bogazianos makes Ulysses unkempt and lackadaisical with an underlying foundation of defeat, he also provides the audiences with glimpses of the man’s sincerity and genuine regret for whatever caused him to lose his family, particularly in several speeches when he remembers playing with the boy while the family was together.
Rupp brings a variety of feelings to her role, including a deep seated anger at her husband for the incident that caused her to flee and his subsequent turn away from his poetry career, a talent of his that she strongly admired. It’s funny to see her slip into some old routines from their earlier days together as she proceeds to clean the kitchen, tidy up the bedroom and even put a vase with flowers on the counter that she has, oddly, brought along from her current home, while helping to change her former husband’s bandages and later deciding to give him a haircut, an obvious carry-over from their previous life. Her talkativeness and confrontational attitude, which wears down at the evening proceeds, is also hiding some additional secrets, which when once revealed, helps make both characters more engaging for the audience.
By the end, we realize that White has given us a special look into the hearts of two people whose expectations for their lives and careers were countered by a series of disappointments that set them off in two wildly separate directions, even as several pieces of important information were withheld from both that may have tempered their separation earlier. Although Ruggiero rightly goes for the comedic interaction between these perhaps long-lost soul mates, he treats each of them with warmth and respect, allowing the evening to end on a remarkable series of hopeful notes.
For information and tickets, contact Theaterworks at 860.527.7838 or visit their website at www.theaterworkshartford.org.