“Annapurna,” by Sharr White, is a complicated love story. The name comes from the 8,000-foot Himalayan Mountain that boasts a particularly high fatality-to-summit ratio. Every year climbers seek her summit, knowing full well that the mountain may kill them. This passion, this siren-like attraction that draws climbers to the deadly mountain, is the metaphor used to describe the deep and dangerous sort of love that still attracts two people long after the survival instinct has pulled them apart.
Yes, this isn’t your average romantic comedy. The laughs are real and they are frequent. But they are also well-earned, because the laughs come with reflection on old wounds, tragic moments and an avalanche of consequences.
The show opens as Emma, the ex-wife of a derelict cowboy poet, shows up at his trailer door 20 years after leaving him in the middle of the night with their five-year-old son. The poet, Ulysses, is a recovering alcoholic who is dying from lung cancer. Emma, can’t quite explain why she has returned after two decades of radio silence – but the hand shaped bruises on her arms and a vinyl pouch with $17,000 in cash indicate there’s something she’s not saying.
Richard McWilliams, as Ulysses, plays the audience like a trout, teasing us with glimpses of his character until we grab the bait and are irreparably hooked. When we first see Ulysses, he is wearing nothing but a chef’s apron, slippers and a backpack-style oxygen concentrator. But something about his attitude, how he carries himself, the words he chooses, tells us that he was not always this vulnerable. Mundane coherency is not a priority for Ulysses – but this is not just an alcoholic’s dementia. Rather, it comes from the poetic mandate to distill each thought into sharp-edged meaning. Even when he screams at Emma get out of his house (a decrepit trailer near Mt. Gunnison, Colorado) we can see that he cannot not endure her presence because he is ashamed to be still in love with her.
Michelle Mountain, who plays Emma, gives little away at first. But she is grain-for-grain a match for the explosive Ulysses – armed not only with lingering romantic passion, but fortified with the all-consuming love of a mother bear for her cub.
Ulysses demands to know why she disappeared without leaving so much as a note. What could he have done, he pleads, that deserved not a word of response to 15 years of faithfully-written letters, sent to the son care of the ex-mother-in-law’s address? Emma is clearly astounded to discover that Ulysses doesn’t remember what happened. She didn’t leave a note because he was there. In fact, she is still hoping for answers from him.
“Annapurna” could easily become bitter and distasteful, or simply pathetic. But under the direction of PRTC Artistic Director Guy Sanville, it is beautiful and funny and poignant. We like Ulysses and Emma. We want them to sort things out. And that’s what makes us care about the pivotal episode buried 20 years in their past. Like Ulysses, we need to know what happened.
This is a piece of brilliant storytelling – the kind that the Purple Rose does so well. It is painful at times, but also healing, and rich with honest laughter. If it is not exactly “life affirming,” it is a poetic and certain reminder that love is as old, solid and lasting as the mountains.
Guy Sanville is supported by a design team that includes Bartley H. Bauer (Set), Danna Segrest (Properties), Tom Whalen (Sound), Dana L. White (Lighting) and Suzanne Young (Costumes). Angie Kane Ferrante is the Stage Manager, assisted by Thomas Macias.
Don’t miss this bittersweet comedy at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, where it runs through December 20, 2014. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. and Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $15 to $42 – note that PRTC is offering both new times and low prices for the Wednesday and Thursday performances this season. Ticket reservations can be made by calling The Purple Rose Theatre Company Box Office at (734) 433-7673 or visiting the website. “Annapurna” contains partial nudity, adult language and themes. The Purple Rose Theatre is located at 137 Park Street, in Chelsea.