Black comedy, bitterness, and intimacy intertwine in Sharr White’s ANNAPURNA, as Ulysses, a dying poet encamped in filthy conditions amidst the natural beauty of the Colorado foothills, is confronted in his trailer by Emma, his long-estranged wife. She left him twenty years ago with their five-year-old son, after a pivotal wrong that he can’t quite recall but she will never forget. Theatre Exile’s top-notch Philadelphia premiere of the gritty two-hander captures the dark humor and devastating hurt of their relationship, as they come to terms with broken love, debilitating loneliness and regret, and imminent death.
Pearce Bunting and Catharine Slusar turn in brave, funny, and tension-packed performances, as the ravaged Ulysses and Emma rehash their past and face the future. She brings him food and tidies up in an attempt to restore order to his squalid digs and waning life, while he suffers the effects of terminal emphysema and lung cancer, sustained by a portable oxygen tank and surrounded in his “purgatory” by the Rocky Mountain paradise. The symbolism of White’s title works on two levels: Annapurna is both the Hindu goddess of nourishment, and a magnificent massif of the Himalayas in Nepal, at an altitude where it is difficult to breathe.
Director Joe Canuso perfectly balances the sardonic wit and devastating poignancy of White’s realistic script, and effectively employs the small reconfigured space of Studio X to suggest the closeness the couple can’t escape, despite the years, miles, and actions that have separated them. The outstanding acting and direction are well supported by Thom Weaver’s seedy set and fitting lighting design, with blackouts between scenes when there is nothing left to say. Katherine Fritz costumes Ulysses in disgustingly dirty rags, and Daniel Perelstein’s clear sound effects contribute to the distressed setting and mood, with a flushing toilet, running shower, and plaintively barking dog. Everything in Exile’s superb production speaks of sadly wasted time and the urgency of coming clean. [Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St., Philadelphia] April 17-May 11, 2014, theatreexile.org.