Ulysses is dying alone in a decrepit trailer in Paonia. When we first see him, there's an oxygen tube taped to his chest and he's frying sausages, naked except for an apron — which he's put on not out of modesty, but to protect his private parts from splattering grease. There are ants and cockroaches in his kitchen, we soon learn, as well as a teetering pile of books under the desk in what could be called the living room; you can almost smell the funky, intimate scent of the rumpled clothes and sheets in the bedroom. Into this place erupts Emma, the estranged wife Ulysses hasn't seen in the twenty years since she absconded in the middle of the night with their son, Sam. Needless to say, she isn't welcome. This is the setup for Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's Annapurna, a two-person play by Sharr White, whose absorbing puzzler The Other Place was a critical hit for the company last year.
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Throughout the evening, the story of Ulysses and Emma's disintegrated marriage unfolds. He's crotchety and defensive; she's sad and guarded, though an irrepressible tenderness seeps through her attempts at self-control. Why did she leave him? Who's to blame? And why is she here now? Is it really because Sam — who now hates her, but why? — has discovered where his father is living and intends to visit and she wants to clean up, both physically and emotionally, before he arrives? Or are there other motivations, too? But while these are central and interesting questions, they're not what give White's insightful play its power. What makes Annapurna significant is the texture of these two people's extended interaction. Ulysses is the kind of guy you'd start off avoiding if you met him in a bar, but draw closer to as he talked and you began to glimpse the damaged, vulnerable, oddly insightful human being beneath the contentious, chuckling veneer. He was once a famous poet — well, as famous as a poet can get these days — and he's an artist to the core. A wicked sense of humor pokes out unexpectedly amid the avoidance and self-pity. Emma wants to take care of him. She attempts to tidy up a bit. Against his strong protests, and having seen the hideous contents of his fridge, she buys groceries and cleaning supplies, along with flea powder. But though she seems patient and long-suffering, she has her own kind of toughness. She has come to escort Ulysses into death, and also perhaps to save his soul. These nuanced characters are brought deeply and beautifully to life by Chris Kendall and Kate Gleason.
The play's title refers to a mountain in Nepal and a 1950 expedition recalled later by the participants with varying degrees of truth. Ulysses talks about the Colorado mountain he can see from his trailer window, the inexperienced climbers who begin their ascent with joy and wind up in life-or-death struggles. As a metaphor for marriage — and life — this is serviceable, but the real jolts of insight come with White's dialogue, the rhythms he creates between two people who are profoundly angry with each other and whose mutual love is just as profound. The wonder of this dialogue is how damn real and quirky it feels. Haven't you ever surprised yourself by suddenly cracking a joke in the middle of a furious argument, or hurled a barbed insult and followed it with a comforting, reached-out hand? That's how it is with Emma and Ulysses. There's nothing melodramatic here. White doesn't sentimentalize Ulysses's illness or Emma's attempts at nurturance. He doesn't provide a straight-up reconciliation or a final parting. He's working much closer to the ground.
Presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through February 16, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, boulderensembletheatre.org.
There's a lot in Annapurna about the power of narrative and memory, as both partners attempt to shape the stories of their marriage and their separate lives. Ulysses's story has been committed to paper in various ways; Emma wants to edit it. In a beautiful scene in Buntport's Kafka on Ice, Franz Kafka sends a letter to his beloved Felice. In her hands, this letter becomes a man made of paper, and she rises and dances with it. "The writing does quite well with her," Kafka observes.
What shape will Ulysses's life and narrative take in Emma's hands?