Several Things That Will Surprise You About Annapurna

Who exactly is Emma?
This was the most prevalent thought that rung through my head throughout the beginning-to-middle of Annapurna, Sharr White’s new play that opened this week at Theatre Row. Emma shows up at Ulysses' trailer, her ex-husband, in the mountains of Colorado after she took off in the night with her five-year-old son 20 years earlier, never seeing him again and severing all communication.
As an audience member, we get a grasp on Ulysses early on. The run-down, hoarders-esque trailer, his unkempt beard and hair, the bandage on his chest and the oxygen tubes stemming from his nose...the fact that he is cooking naked with only a short-shorts version of an apron covering his junk. All of this creates a character easily, before White’s writing starts to take off. But Emma didn’t have that luxury. Her costuming - a leather jacket, glasses, a print maxi-skirt, red hair - said nothing about her, neither did her initial scenes (essentially, the furious, yet concerned ex-wife).
Then something caught me off-guard…for a two-character play, Annapurna is, deliberately, not about Emma. Instead, all of the shuffling around, cleaning and talking Emma does reveals the minimum about who she is (granted, her guarded exterior does register as one of her more prominent traits), but more about Ulysses and, if anything, her relationship to him. You would think this dynamic would hinder the play - especially where a woman is concerned - but it doesn’t. White, quite cleverly, kept me on the hook as the play unfolded, enjoying the increasingly-complex Ulysses and waiting for Emma to reveal herself. She does get some fine character moments near the end - and let’s not overlook Megan Mullally’s contribution, her controlled performance is effective - but the show is about Ulysses and I am more then okay with that.
Ulysses is one of the most complex characters I have ever seen - a former cowboy/poet/professor turned blackout-alcoholic/smoker turned recovering alcoholic/emphysemic and lung cancer patient... who lives in solitary in the Colorado mountains. I mean, talk about having that as a moniker of descriptors. As Emma tears back his layers and as he opens up, the more believable the character was and the more intrigued I became. The audience, like himself, wants to get to the root of his history and relationships, just to see how this guy wound up where he his. For a show, that takes place over 90 minutes (or a day in these character’s lives), White’s writing paints quite the succinct picture and, underneath the surface, Annapurna is how this couple’s final moments together - what was unsaid and uncertain - impacted the rest of their lives and how this out-of-nowhere reunion could affect them even further.
Debatably, the biggest surprise of the show is Nick Offerman’s performance as Ulysses, a flawless rendering of a character that, I’m guessing, reads really well on paper and needs quite the talented performer to flesh out all of his nuance. I've always known Offerman is a comic gem - look no further then his tenure as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation - but he has the dramatic chops as well and when he is given the chance to be full-blown distraught, he achieves something fantastic in a way I couldn't see any other actor nailing. Mullally and Offerman make great scene partners - that might have to do with their whole "being married in real-life" thing - but it's the latter who walks off with the show in the end.
If anything, White continues to impress me. His first two works were The Other Place (which I really liked) and The Snow Geese (which I didn’t like). And now, Annapurna is another great entry in his cannon and even better, all three pieces are quite distinctive in themes, content, tone…everything. Talk about having a range and writing outside any preset boundaries. I am looking forward to his next show on the sole idea that I have no clue what to expect - exciting, no?!
Ticket Provided By the Production
Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

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