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Annapurna — Theatre Exile at Studio X

annapurnagal10 “Annapurna” is a play based on withholding.

Playwright Sharr White repeatedly hints at an incident that caused a woman to take her son and flee from her husband, the boy’s father, 20 years before “Annapurna” begins. It is waiting to hear the details of this story — finally — that keeps the audience at Theatre Exile interested in White’s domestic reunion drama in spite of excellent performances by Catharine Slusar and Pearce Bunting and other mildly baiting teases White throws in and answers along the way.

White’s game of “I’ve Got a Secret” creates more curiosity than suspense. You wait patiently to find out what occurred that drove this pair asunder on an evening when Emma, the woman, returned from an errand to the store and found something that forced her to run and remain a stranger to the man, Ulysses, for two decades. You wait patiently, but more because you want to fill in a hole in Emma’s story and have some satisfaction from knowing a complete tale than because you are deeply invested in Emma and Ulie or are down to your cuticle in wonder.

As in White’s Broadway offering this season, “The Snow Geese,” the author creates a series of dramatic situations, pregnant with possibility, but fails to follow through in a deep or affecting way. All is set-up. There’s precious little payoff. Slusar and Bunting may entertain, and Joe Canuso’s overall production for Exile impresses in all conceivable ways, but “Annapurna” doesn’t have the height, the scale, or the theatrical danger to make it a formidable play or a challenge to mount. It remains a quiet piece about two people who have a true bond and share true love in spite of their crises or years of separation without communication. Slusar and Bunting make you care and like this couple, but White never quite provides enough reason why you should want to watch them. “Annapurna” lacks the kind of dramatic peaks that could make it heroic if a character conquered them. To borrow from one of Ulie’s observations, it’s like a weekend hiker who never gets past the foothills and into heady or rugged terrain. As, intense as “Annapurna” at times is, It wouldn’t engage if its wasn’t for that lingering question mark about how Emma and Ulie part so suddenly and reunite with as little preparation and fanfare.

“Annapurna” begins when Emma, bags and baggage, arrives at the door or Ulysses’s remote Colorado trailer and announces she’s planning to stay for a while. In a series of fast, well-staged blackout scenes, you realize the two were once married, have not seen other for 20 years, and Ulysses is as shocked by Emma’s sudden presence as if she was apparition.

You also know Ulysses is seriously ill. The hint there is he’s frying sausage, bad spoiled sausage he bought at a Dollar Store, wearing only an apron and a backpack supporting a small oxygen tank attached to a hose which allows him to breathe through the plastic prongs that are lodged in his nose.

During the blackouts, Ulysses commands Emma to leave, but she stays because she has a mission.

Some of the conundra White intersperses as Emma and Ulie talk about two decades of life apart are what ails Ulie, how Emma got some nasty bruises on her arms and back, where Emma acquired a decent amount of cash, and how the couple’s son, Sam, was affected by Ulie’s omission from his life. Although is not addressed in White’s script one may also wonder how Emma is ever going to clean Ulie’s trailer to make it habitable for someone who needs to vomit when she beholds a mold-laden refrigerator and a constant invasion of ants. Again, these questions keep “Annapurna” mildly diverting while never crossing the line to touching or poignant.

In their pasts, Emma and Ulysses were both interested in literature. Ulie is a published poet who had a post as a professor at an Eastern university and some reputation among knowing literati. We learn he has composed a poem, “Annapurna,” a box-filling epic at least a ream long, with some passages written on paper towels, napkins, and toilet tissue, that is about his relationship with Emma. Emma was a writer who stopped composing when she decided her work could never compete with Ulie’s and who has worked as an editor and high school English teacher. Ulie’s trailer belies education, sophistication, and recognized talent that could, but for some personal flaws, such as alcohol, lead to him to working or joining a faculty, a matter about which he might be choosy considering that he and Emma laugh in scorn when she reveals her second husband, one she abandoned as suddenly as she left Ulie, taught at a Rhode Island community college that denied him tenure.

The pair have a good time reminiscing, but insights into their incompatibility arise when they speak of more current events.  Ulie’s drinking, coupled with Emma’s departure, has led to a downward spiral that ruined his academic career, his finances, and his health. The wreck of a Colorado trailer is a fitting symbol for its uncaring, uncared-for occupant living what are likely to be his last days in contented squalor. Emma, which a child to tend, has had an unremarkable middle class existence with Ulie’s replacement, Peter, with whom she ran a chain of dry cleaning franchises. Emma has lived on impulse and dumb luck that turned to disappointment, and now she is back at Ulie’s door seeking some redemption and as much a reunion with her humanity as with a man who has been on her mind since her hasty, anger-driven exit from him.

“Annapurna” obviously covers a lot of dramatic and emotional ground. It just stays at the level of being a good and time-whiling story and never finds its wings as a play. It reminds me of several productions this season — “4000 Miles,” “The Train Driver,” “Tribes,” “The Exonerated” — that had good ingredients and satisfying moments but never turned into a complete meal. In “Annapurna’s'” case, I think it’s because so many of the important events in Ulie and Emma’s lives were from the past, and the present seems more settled and uninteresting in spite of Emma being somewhat adrift, stack of cash or not. Leaking enough information to tantalize us to stay interested until the next episodic revelation, White keeps getting all of the mileage he can from the withholding technique but rarely comes up with a sequence that grabs our hearts and refuses let go. Nor is he skillful enough to convince us that Ulie and Emma are a made-for-each-other inevitability. Their relationship seems loving but not permanent, Ulie’s health and Emma’s penchant for escape being factors. The play doesn’t bore, but it remains lukewarm and keeps us waiting to see if anything, including Emma’s ultimate revelation, will move it from interesting to captivating or stirring.

Joe Canuso certainly finds the right look for “Annapurna.” Ulie’s trailer is a wreck, with sheets swirling atop a bare mattress, dishes emerging like a Melmac glacier out of the sink, a toaster oven that hasn’t been washed since it was extracted from its box, and a table strewn with unorganized paper. Ulie’s digs are fitting for one who has given up on everything, including his health, which is probably too terminal to do much about anyhow.

Pearce Bunting’s Ulie has acclimated well to his dingy trash heap of a residence. He lives in a community of people who gave up and takes some, if small, comfort in having a great view of a Rockies promontory outside his backdoor.

Bunting’s Ulie is as natural as the setting in which he’s chosen to live. Soiled clothing, when he elects to wear clothing, filthy surfaces, and a mean dog who tear off your arm for some putrid sausage suit the thoughtless ease he wants from his life. The only sign that he values life at all is the oxygen tank and nasal attachment he wears even when he’s nude. Ulie can opt to lay down and suffocate, but he chooses to breathe.

Bunting moves with ease through Ulie’s debris. He embraces it. He can be the trailer-park refugee who marks out aimless days that would turn any semblance of purpose into an imposition.

Ulie’s peace is disturbed by Emma. Bunting expresses that well in the blackout sequences. He is also moved by her. You can tell that though he isn’t delighted or overjoyed to see his ex-wife, he is on some level glad, or maybe amused, that she re-appeared.

Bunting can show you Ulie’s resignation as well as his pain. He acts a scene in which Ulie cannot catch his breath with great authenticity. You don’t see an actor or a character as much as man with limited time going about his undemanding business. With Emma as Ulie’s audience and respondent, Bunting even shows signs of the literary man who has an affection for words.

Bunting’s is a good, solid performance that helps to keep “Annapurna” from totally dragging and that allows us to understand Ulie’s condition in life.

Catharine Slusar is equally attractive with her intelligent portrayal of Emma.

Slusar makes Emma at once tough and fragile. She is a woman who has run unceremoniously from two men, a mother who feels responsible for her son ‘s discontentment with the world, and someone who likes to action when it seems necessary to do so.

Slusar’s Emma is clear-eyed and no-nonsense. She reacts to the sty in which she finds Ulie, but her impulse is to clean it up and restore some order instead of running again for cover. She can be diamond-hard while presenting her side of her life with Ulie and sensitive when Ulie needs her or counters with a fact or even a retort that forces her to re-evaluate matters as she remembers them.

Emma is at a crossroads in her life while Ulie is moseying down his last trail. Slusar lets you see her strength, assurance, and willfulness while also betraying some vulnerability and Emma’s intolerance for certain kinds of behavior.

Emma is squeamish when it comes to horrid sights, like the spate of science experiments Ulie has flourishing in his refrigerator. Slusar is marvelous at miming someone gagging and trying to control the urge to vomit before she gives into it.

Both actors establish reality for their characters. I admire Slusar’s steely way with a line, and her subtlety when she is saving a joke or revelation so it will have its maximum effect.

The completeness of the acting does not compensate for the deficiencies in the play, and while Bunting and Slusar rate kudos for engaging jobs well done, White does not provide them the ammunition to make “Annapurna” a moving or tellingly thematic encounter.

Thom Weaver is responsible for creating the mess of a dwelling in which Ulysses resides. He not only does a good job at manufacturing squalor, he is canny enough to leave enough cabinet space for Slusar’s Emma to fill when she goes shopping for vittles more edible than the Dollar Store sausage.

Katherine Fritz is having a busy and productive spring. Her shirts and even the backpack for Ulie are the right kind of dingy while the meticulously kept apparel she designs for Emma is equally perfect.

Alice Yorke, as prop designer, arms Emma with just the right wooden fruit bowl to whip from her matching luggage and load with apples stored in another compartment of her bags. I also liked the choice of toaster oven and cookie jar.

Daniel Perelstein’s sound design made me wary of that dog Ulie and Emma keep feeding. (At least Emma gives him avocados instead of week-old meat.)

“Annapurna” runs through Sunday, May 11, produced by Theatre Exile at Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, and 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $10 and can be obtained by calling 215-218-4022 or going online to www.theatreexile.org.

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