Chester Theatre Company productions often remind me of concerts in a chamber music series that feature musicians who have worked together for long periods of time.
Annapurna by Sharr White. Directed by Robert Egan, At the Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA, through July 20.
By Helen Epstein
There are at least four major reasons I will go out of my way to see any production of a Sharr White play. First, White’s language ranges from deliberately banal to witty to poetic — it is as interesting to listen to as music. Second, his women characters have lives and storylines independent of the men with whom they are or have been involved with; they more than hold their own with the males onstage. Third, I am interested in Sharr’s psychological insight into the dynamics of intimate relationships. Fourth, I love his way of leavening even the most dismal situations with humor.
Two Berkshire theaters have showcased White’s work this summer, first Barrington Stage produced The Other Place (see my Arts Fuse review); now the Chester Theatre Company is staging Annapurna.
Both plays engage with the themes of love, illness, and loss of memory. But while The Other Place focuses on an upper-middle-class professional couple in a succession of cushy venues in eastern Massachusetts, Annapurna takes place in a trailer park in Colorado where the only picturesque place for the eyes to rest is on the peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the distance, outside the windows.
The play opens with a neatly-dressed and coiffed, middle-aged woman rolling her carry-on into Vicki R. Davis’s mercilessly literal single set: the aluminum bones of a shabbily furnished mobile home, with piles of dirty laundry and assorted other soiled items piled near a battered couch, and a kitchen so filthy it makes the visitor gag. The man who lives there, a once-successful poet named Ulysses (played by tall, fleshy Daniel Riordan) is frying up cheap sausage, wearing nothing but a very stained apron, and appears as disheveled as his home. After the surprise of his nakedness under the apron wears off, you notice the clear plastic tube under his nostrils and the gauze patch on his back. His health has gone downhill a long time ago. He hasn’t seen his wife or son for 20 years. And the neatly-dressed woman who has arrived with several suitcases is his ex-wife Emma (played by slim, diminutive Michelle Joyner).
“Holy crap!” Ulysses exclaims, in a series of double takes.
“I know,” Emma responds.
Out of this unpromising beginning, White creates a lyrical and engrossing script. Both characters in this two-hander are in their mid-fifties. Both are intelligent, gifted, wounded people who have been living with the consequences of terrible choices. He is an alcoholic, sober now for seven years, who has just had lung surgery to treat his cancer. Her crisp appearance belies a life of compromise and hides the bruises of a recent battering by her current husband. They have a 25-year-old son.
I won’t tell you any more about the development of the plot because one of Annapurna’s charms is the way it affords new glimpses of the past, like a mountain road that as it ascends loops (and loops) back over itself. Instead, I’d like to speculate about the production.
CTC productions often remind me of concerts in a chamber music series that feature musicians who have worked together for long periods of time. In the case of Annapurna, the director and actors are new to CTC (they are based in California), but they are intimately related to one another. Robert Egan, the Founding Artistic Director/Producer of the Ojai Playwright’s Conference, is a veteran director and dramaturge. Joyner (originally from Westfield, Ma) is his wife. Riordan is a family friend. Their ease with one another is palpable in this remarkably relaxed and coherent staging in which the actors and director make agile use of an extensive emotional palate and the opportunities for innovative stage business. Egan uses the intimacy of CTC’s small theater and his intimacy with the actors to pull the audience into the reality of the play: we feel as though we’re sitting in the trailer with them, witnessing their story.
As the aging “genius with the penis,” Riordan has the requisite voice and physical and psychological presence. He is charismatic and convincing as the cowboy poet who once dazzled the young English major from Barnard College. As the more subdued and less gifted Emma, still struggling to reconcile her feelings for Ulysses as well as order her priorities as lover, wife, mother, and professional woman, Joyner gives a quieter, subtler performance that balances Riordan’s.
The production moves effortlessly from beginning to end, enhanced by country western music and sound design by Tom Shread, shrewdly appropriate costuming by Charles Schoonmaker, and lighting by Lara Dubin.
Drive to Chester if you can and see it during its short run.