By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Sharr White's Annapurna (which is simultaneously running off-Broadway in New York) is named for a mountain, a high peak in the Himalayas. This two-character play, in a fine production by Theatre Exile, takes place high up in the Rockies in Colorado, an odd place, given the altitude, for somebody who needs an oxygen tank to breathe.
Ulysses (the extraordinary Pearce Bunting) is a poet; he is clearly dying of emphysema and lung cancer. We meet him wearing nothing but a little greasy apron under his beer belly, a stained bandage across his chest, and the oxygen tank. He lives in squalor in a ramshackle trailer park. When his wife, Emma (Catherine Slusar) arrives after twenty years, he stands, holding a frying pan and repeating, in astonishment, "Holy crap!" Then, blackout.
This sit-com start is misleading, intentionally so, since Annapurna grows both darker and more tender as it continues to reveal this long-ago married couple. Their son is now 25, a young man who has been searching for his father. Ulysses, we will learn, has been writing to Sam several times a week for the past twenty years and never received a reply.
There is a mystery: something happened which caused Emma to run away from their home; whatever it was, Ulysses, a reformed drunk, cannot remember. And here she is again, having run away from another husband.
Slusar's chilliness and wry jokiness is at first off-putting but then seems completely right for her character who is defending herself against a love she cannot forsake. Bunting creates a Ulysses who is both irresistible and impossible, first baffled and then horrified.
The play's central metaphor is about a mountain climber who made one mistake: "one thing you do and everything is ruined." Joe Canuso's direction builds the suspense and the love, although a lot of the filler busy-ness (unpacking groceries, sandwich-making) is both implausible –baking powder, really?—and distracting.
Sharr White's play of two seasons ago, The Other Place, was also about people where the physical and the psychological damage are linked in desperate and dire ways. Here the damage is less complex and the play feels less layered, although there is a dazzling redemptive moment when Ulysses recites the beginning of the epic he has written, a poem called Annapurna. The play finally summits.
Theatre Exile at Studio X, 13th & Reed Sts. Through May 11. Tickets $10-40. Information: 215-218-4022 or theatreexile.org