“There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men,” Maurice Herzog wrote, referring to those life challenges that demand extraordinary risks.
In June 1950, Herzog and fellow climber Louis Lachenal were the first to conquer the 8,000-meter massif in the Himalayas, and it cost them enormously –– amputated fingers and toes. A different but no less painful kind of loss faces us in more ordinary circumstances –– like marriage, for example.
Playwright Sharr White, in his play “Annapurna,” now streaming from Syracuse Stage, exposes such loss in a forced encounter between a husband and wife, 20 years separated. Their part-acrimonious, part-humorous face-off is all the more striking for occurring within an intensely confined space: a run-down mobile home in the remote Rockies of western Colorado.
Emma (Dawn Stern) arrives unannounced, after two decades, to the isolated mountain retreat of her ex-husband, Ulysses (Stephan Wolfert). A former university professor and poet, Ulysses is now eking out his diminished days with a howling dog and little money. He’s surprised and irritated at Emma’s arrival, especially given her absolute silence after having disappeared mysteriously with their 5-year-old son so many years earlier.
Finding ourselves in the cramped space of the trailer, we’re as surprised as Ulysses (“Holy crap!” is his first response), and Emma does little to clarify why she’s come so far after so long, with disturbing bruises and a few suitcases. She in turn is upset that her ex, with shaggy grey hair and an unkempt beard, is wearing only a greasy apron and a backpack (to carry his oxygen tank). (It’s hot and he’s frying sausage, he explains.)
The sight of the two of them dodging each other in the trailer’s narrow straits is the first hint of levity, their barbed exchanges the second. And we quickly recognize that familiar truth: a deep connection, long severed, can often revive just where it left off, with all the understanding, blindness, and intensity of yesteryear.
Ably directed by Syracuse artistic director Robert Hupp, this 90-minute drama pulls us in close to this couple’s endless verbal sparring. (The actors, interestingly, are married in real life and their own mobile home serves as the setting.) The video design by Kate Freer does wonders in the small space –– and also offers us occasional relief with stunning aerial shots over the sunlit mountains. Dave Bowman’s lighting, Jacqueline Herter’s sound, and Lux Haac’s costumes all contribute (and we’re as relieved as Emma when Ulysses eventually dons tattered shorts and shirt).
As Emma unpacks groceries she’s brought and tries to tidy up, we gradually learn that another visitor is expected imminently: their son Sam, now a grad student. He’s furious with his mother and has made a romantic hero –– a superman, a saint –– of his mysteriously absent father. And finally we learn that Sam has recently discovered the hundreds of long letters Ulysses has written his son each week –– Emma’s mother having hidden them from both Emma and Sam.
To tell more would be too much, as it’s a gradual unfolding of the past missteps, the crumbled lives, that’s the stuff of this drama. The most remarkable –– and final ––reveal is why Emma disappeared with her son in the first place, leaving her alcoholic husband bereft and confused.
Ulysses’ drinking destroyed their marriage and though he sobered up, he traded heavy smoking for booze. Unable to afford medical treatment, he’s now barely surviving. Wolfert’s rendering of this intelligent, talented man laid low by emphysema and poverty is stunning. One attack, where he’s desperate for his inhaler (hidden in the cookie jar to keep the roaches out of it), is unnervingly real.
“This is a purgatory on earth for me,” Ulysses explains, in ironic literary mode. “All my sins have brought me here, and I must sit and ponder them before I’m allowed to die.” Stern’s Emma, who has dramatically just burned bridges with her current husband, has her own sins but confronts Ulysses relentlessly: “People care about you and you punish them for it.”
We can’t go back, but if we commit, we can go forward: There’s no making amends, but we can make peace. The final scene of this unforgettably acted play provides a painful release and recognition. Holding a box of jumbled paper scraps, Ulysses reads exquisite lines of his recent poetry and Emma strokes his hair –– great love can sometimes offer great forgiveness.
“Annapurna” by Sharr White, is directed by Robert Hupp. Streaming at 7:30 all evenings through April 4. Tickets at Syracusestage.org or box office 315-443-3275.