Sharr White’s two-person play Annapurna drops us into the center of a hellhole surrounded by the snow-peaked Rockies, the infinite crags and features of the mountains that cut the country in half with an immense buckle. The mountains are so high in some places that it snows in July at the crests. Sunburns happen all year ’round, and oxygen becomes rarer with the elevation.
Here, in this alpine isolation, director Isaac Lamb, actors Karen Trumbo and Bruce Burkhartsmeier, and Third Rail Rep take on the vistas of middle-age regrets. We’re in a trailer, the kind owned by a fugitive. Scenic designer Kay Blankenship has us in years-old soaked grime, grease, and perma-dust that has settled and become a petrified feature of the longhouse hovel. The trailer looks like the backseat of a teenager’s car cluttered with moldy food cartons, curdled milk bottles, dirty laundry, and trash. The only elements that seem missing from this realistic set are random hairs or nail clippings, but no one would want to look that closely. If this home is a picture of the owner, the owner is a hot mess.
The king of this ragged castle is Ulysses, played by Burkhartsmeier, whom we meet for the first time in his natural state except for an apron made from an old towel tied around his waist. He’s a large man who’s settled onto the path of aging, but his crystal-clear eyes still beam from beneath their almond lids. He carries a hyper-blue backpack that slings a tube around the front of his face and is held into his nostrils. It’s oxygen. His dog is that dog of the neighborhood, the one who won’t quit barking day or night. It could be neuroticism, idiocy, or a mean streak, but all understanding aside, it’s damn annoying. Just when you suppose you’re not uncomfortable enough, Ulysses’ ex-wife comes through the door.
And here we go, watching a volatile negotiation between two people who, while they’ve led separate lives for decades, could never become unattached. First love, young love, first marriage, bringing a child into the world, the building of identities together, a history that can’t be forgotten, but they both tried to get their eraser marks in. The first few brief scenes between Burkhartsmeier and Trumbo sound and look like acting, and it’s a nice distraction from the overall anxiety ride we’re in for. Most failed marriages aren’t breeding grounds for congeniality or warmth, and both actors use playwright White’s journalistic dialogue like shooting practice. The script’s arc is comparable to ocean waves in a heavy storm: up, over, and through the strung-out emotional exchanges until they hit flat and spread out in a disappearing act. White’s play allows director Lamb to bring out his earthy and deep talents for humor, physical movement, and forceful presence in both actors. In one line, Burkhartsmeier says: “I tell you, we’re all in trouble if I’m the uber mensch.” Burkhartsmeier’s slight Texarkana accent pitches between softness in self-gratifying comebacks and chilling frost when his temper blows the roof. He shows us the ghost of the man he was and the future real ghost he’s facing. It’s a complex play that uses its witty lines not just to give us a break from the heartache, but also to reinforce the misery at hand. Lamb’s agility at bringing the actors just to the edge of a breakdown, but to quickly soldier up in stoic postures, gives this production a compassion with a tense edge.
Trumbo’s Emma is a middle-class East Coaster who probably has a den with a nautical theme in her home. She’s not toting a trunk of emotional baggage, but a clear chasm of pain on her face hints that she’s alone most of the time. She moves in a slow, deliberate, feminine way, like women who have carried children and careers, and through all the sacrifice have had no time for themselves. Emma is annoying in the way she nurses the dungheap back to a kind of respectability, while assuming a higher moral ground that she often displays with a judging finger that itself has chosen compromise. Trumbo and Burkhartsmeier occupy each other’s space like old lovers: they’ve known the most inner parts, but now an immense static between them carves out one face of the tragedy. As they argue, reminisce, try at compromise, try to understand why their marriage unraveled, the saddest element appears: by losing their connection, they’ve also lost interest, the investment in the everyday magic of life, and so with it the ability to dream. Losing their relationship meant a life without the sublime. Their son is on his way to meet Ulysses, and Emma has journeyed ahead to try to patch up the holes in the reasons she left in the middle of the night twenty years earlier with their child. She’s discovered she has to shape up Ulysses, too. Ulysses doesn’t want to remember what pushed her out of their door, but somewhere deep inside he knows the bottle let him down one too many a time, and his addiction has cost him his life.
Lamb, Trumbo, and Burkhartsmeier take a play with crisp lines and a plot that echoes Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf and Sam Shepard’s works with a refinement that brings the story up to date. It’s as if Ira Glass’s This Modern Life and the New York Times Modern Love column had combined their stories for the stage. The elephants in the room are overgrown corpses, but White’s play is an insightful look into what drives contemporary relationships over the edge.
Third Rail Rep’s Annapurna continues through August 27 at Imago Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.