In Sharr White’s Annapurna, co-produced by Honest Pint Theatre Company and North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, Ulysses is a man who is letting go. Along with everything else, he is letting go of his emotional baggage, his connections to others, and the use of his skills as a writer. He is a man at the end of his life.
Literally: Ulysses is at the end of the road, on a mountaintop, waiting to die. He has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; and despite having been a successful university professor and a well-regarded writer, he does not have the money to pay for any sort of treatment.
“Ugh!” you say, “How horribly depressing!”
But to that we say, “No! No! Not at all!”
This play is far from depressing. Despite the heavy premise, remarkably, this play is funny — really funny! When was the last time that the first two words of dialogue evoked raucous laughter from the entire audience? When was the last time that each of the next two lines also resulted in hearty laughter?
More importantly: when was the last time that the entire audience applauded wildly within two minutes after lights-up?
You see, this play is also poignant and moving. Yes, there are tons of laughs; but there are also a few tears. The power and grace seen in this production, directed by Dana Marks, makes it easily among the best plays that we have ever seen. This is probably because Ulysses does not feel sorry for himself. He has accepted his fate and finds humor and meaning in his situation. This is a story of human redemption and forgiveness. It’s a story of grace.
The action takes place entirely in a run-down trailer home on top of a mountain. The set (by Miyuki Su) is a thing of beauty. The details are amazing (if one can apply the word “amazing” to a dilapidated trailer). Particularly striking is its authenticity — the old cabinetry, the shirts strewn here and there, the boxes of who-knows-what, an old afghan strewn on a dated sofa, the over-stuffed trashcan, the easy chair repaired with duct tape…. All perfectly placed, these details truly transport the audience into the world of the play. The costumes, by the way, are also strikingly appropriate for these two characters.
Emma is Ulysses’ ex-wife. She has tracked him down after not having seen him for 20 years. They have a son, Sam, who was five years old when Emma took him out of Ulysses’ life. Ulysses knew nothing of this reunion.
The acting is absolutely spot-on. Susannah Hough plays Emma. The very way she carries herself expresses the mixture of feelings surging through her — this is acting at its finest. She very quickly assumes the role of caretaker, and she navigates through the thorns deeply embedded in their relationship as she moves on to the purpose for her visit. You can feel her love and hurt in her every word and action.
David Henderson is similarly magical as Ulysses, a man who feels responsible for his own fate and views his ex-wife’s arrival with a mixture of suspicion and joy. It is easy to believe that Ulysses is a writer, because of his wit and use of metaphors when he speaks. Henderson’s natural delivery of these lines easily sells this character’s personality to us.
As the characters deal with the circumstances of Emma’s arrival and what it really means, we learn the story of their relationship: their courtship and marriage, the start of their family, the love, then the anguish, and finally, their sudden separation. After 20 years apart, their old wounds inevitably resurface. The two fight, they laugh, they become tender, and they are visually saddened by the loss of so much of what they once had.
Unlike Edward Albee’s difficult and depressing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, which deals with the drunken derailment of a caustic relationship, Annapurnais not tiresome at all, because the overwhelming feeling in the room is love. Sure, there is hurt; there is also some anger. But: these two characters truly love one another; and now that they have come together, they will certainly resolve the questions that their long-lost relationship left unanswered. They will come to terms with their differences while they still can. Ultimately, they both hope to find forgiveness and grace.
Annapurna is a section of the Himalayas that contains numerous peaks over four miles high — one of which is nearly five miles high. Historically, Wikipedia tells us, “the Annapurna peaks are among the world’s most dangerous mountains to climb.”
Ulysses is the Latinized name of the hero of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Ulysses is also the title of James Joyce’s lengthy, early 20th century novel, whose protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is in many ways a thought of as a parallel to Homer’s Ulysses
While much shorter than either of those works, Annapurna gives us the epic story of the lives of Ulysses and Emma. Like the adventurers who tackle the Himalayas’ Annapurna, Ulysses and Emma have been “climbing” and will continue to climb and navigate life’s peaks and pitfalls.
This gem of a play brings to mind the lyrics in a Don Henley song: “The Heart of the Matter“:
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone
They let you down and hurt your pride
Better put it all behind you; life goes on
You keep carrin’ that anger, it’ll eat you inside.
I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the Heart of the Matter
Because the flesh will get weak
And the ashes will scatter
So I’m thinkin’ about forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.
How can you beat a play that can make you laugh heartily and love the characters deeply? Go — see Annapurna. And be redeemed.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 22nd Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7559″>http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7559; Aug. 19th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/annapurna/Event?oid=4626875; and Aug. 19th Raleigh, NC Triangle on Stage interview with David Henderson and Susannah Hough, conducted by Alex Matsuo: https://www.spreaker.com/user/triangleonstage/honest-pint-theatres-annapurna. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 20th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell and the Aug. 22nd review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/08/in-annapurna-david-henderson-and-susannah-hough-plunge-into-an-emotional-whirlpool/ and http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/08/sharr-whites-annapurna-packs-a-punch-with-passion-compassion-and-laughter/, respectively.)
The Honest Pint Theatre Company and North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre present ANNAPURNA at 3 p.m. Aug. 23, 8 p.m. Aug. 28 and 29, 3 p.m. Aug. 30, 8 p.m. Sept. 4 and 5, and 3 p.m. Sept. 6 at NRACT, 7713-51 Lead Mine Rd., Raleigh, NC 27615, in the Greystone Village Shopping Center.
TICKETS: $17 evenings and $15 matinees ($14 evenings and $12 matinees students and teachers, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except $10 First Sunday Matinee on Aug. 23rd.
BOX OFFICE: 919-866-0228, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://nract.org/tickets.
SHOW: http://nract.org/upcoming-productions/annapurna, http://www.honestpinttheatre.org/#!annapurna/cids, and https://www.facebook.com/events/1640535516213160/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvcmL3aa21U.
Honest Pint Theatre Company: http://www.honestpinttheatre.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/honestpinttheatrecompany. HPTC BLOG: http://www.honestpinttheatre.org/#!blog/cb1n.
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre: http://www.nract.org/, https://www.facebook.com/NRACT, and https://twitter.com/NRACT.
Annapurna (2011 San Francisco, 2013 Los Angeles, and 2014 Off-Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=4757 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.sharrwhite.com/annapurna.html (Sharr White’s website), http://www.lortel.org/ and (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Sharr White (playwright): http://www.sharrwhite.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=493080 (Internet Broadway Database, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharr_White (Wikipedia).
Dana Marks (Durham, NC guest director and managing director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern): http://littlegreenpig.com/members/ (Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern bio) and https://www.facebook.com/dana.marks.5 (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.