Sharr White's Annapurna (simultaneously running off-Broadway) is named for a mountain in the Himalayas.
But this two-character play, in a fine production by Theatre Exile that opened Thursday, takes place high up in the Rockies, in Colorado - an odd place, given the altitude, for someone who needs an oxygen tank to breathe.
That's where we find Ulysses (the extraordinary Pearce Bunting), a poet, 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 (Catharine Slusar), shows up after 20 years, he stands holding a frying pan and repeating in astonishment, "Holy crap!" Then, blackout.
This sitcom start is misleading - intentionally so, as Annapurna grows both darker and more tender as it continues to reveal this long-ago married couple.
Their son, Sam, now 25, has been searching for his father. Ulysses, we learn, has written to Sam several times a week for the last 20 years and never received a reply.
There is a mystery: Something happened that caused Emma to run away from their home. What 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, defending herself against a love she cannot forsake. Bunting creates a Ulysses both irresistible and impossible, 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? - and distracting.
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 reaches a summit.
Through May 11, Theatre Exile at Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets.
Information: 215-218-4022 or theatreexile.org.