Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Extremeties
Twenty years ago, Emma left Ulysses in the middle of the night, with their young son Sammy. She has had no contact with Ulysses since that night, not reading the letters he sent, not taking his phone calls, and has offered no explanation as to why she left with such haste and resolve. Ulysses spent the past twenty years wondering what he had done to deserve such abandonment, though his rabid alcoholism might have been a factor. Since that night, Ulysses' drinking cost him his university position and budding career as celebrated poet. He now exists (lives would be an exaggeration) in a broken down trailer on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies, isolated and largely incommunicado with the world.
The play starts with a blast of energy: Ulysses is completely naked, save the apron he donned to shield his privates from the sausage he is frying on his stove top, slippers, and an oxygen tank hanging on his back from makeshift rope shoulder straps. Emma barges in with two matched suitcases, clearly unexpected, as Ulysses' initial response is to repeat "Holy crap!" over and over. We hear his dog loudly barking to announce the intruder. Ulysses' first impulse is to send Emma away, but she insistently remains, explaining that their Sam, now 25 years old, is en route to meet his father before it is too late. Sam hired a private detective to learn about the father he never knew, and in the process found out about that his father is dying from emphysema and lung cancerhence, the oxygen tank.
Emma claims she had to get there before Sam, to prepare Ulysses for the meeting with his son, though we know what else may be behind her visit. Could it be the problems with her second husband, whom she hurriedly left behind in Rhode Island to reach Ulysses before Sam? Or are there unresolved feelings about Ulyssesclearly, she has a hard time not treating with tenderness, especially upon seeing his filthy home, his failing body, and the utter seclusion of his life.
The two characters in Annapurna are played with the deepest conviction by two of our most dependable actors. Angela Timberman lets us in on the emotional train wreck Emma is experiencing as she tries to be the voice of reason, a responsible adult who goes shopping to stock Ulysses' cupboard and prepare a decent meal, and guarding her personal life under lock and key. She arrives dressed in the slightly gaudy yet mundane garb of her strip mall-based life. After a shower, she changes into a soft, flowing dress with a calming print, a change Timberman reflects in her demeanor, as she begins to reconnect with the life she desperately fled years ago.
Terry Hempleman creates a scarred, cynical Ulysses, who has managed to go on living after losing everything, by dealing with just what was necessary to get through another day. He is utterly alone, with only his dog, and the unanswered letters to his son he has continued to write, to wake up for, tolerating the ants and roaches with whom he shares his trailer home. Hempleman manages to make Ulysses likeable and resourceful, and we never doubt that there are deep emotions under the crusty surface of indifference he has carefully cultivated.
Joel Sass directs Annapurna with an even hand, balancing Ulysses' and Emma's cases so that we feel disturbed by, and compassion for, both in equal measure. The shift in their interactions, from icy defensiveness to friendly, if forced, détente and, finally, to the vulnerability and tenderness that first brought them together, feels natural and inevitable.
While this is a two character play, there is the felt presence of others. Sam for one, who, in spite of Emma's efforts to remove any trace of his father from his life, inevitably forces her to return and face Ulysses. The trailer itself feels like a living presence, a manifestation of Ulysses' spiritual, economic, and physical decay, and of the magnitude of challenge Emma faces if she harbors any hopes of her ex-husbands redemption.
Seen in a cutaway view, the trailer is brilliantly designed by Joel Sass, and decorated as if the inventory of a yard sale had been blown about by a wind generator. It is stuffed with the debris of a used up life. A television sits turned toward the wall, seemingly unused. Do TV signals even reach this remote place? The kitchen counters are barely painted, rough wood, the door-less cabinets revealing a paucity of food or cookware. Books, once the manna of this poet's life, are crammed chaotically into a bookcase.
Sound plays a big role in Annapurna as well, as we hear the dog barking, the on and off chirping of mountain birds, reminding us that the interior chaos of the trailer lies within the innocence of the natural world. The costumes are minimal, but perfect for these two characters: Ulysses' lady-like apron, which he eventually trades for cut-off jeans and a plaid western shirt, Emma's two outfits that signal the two worlds in which she has lived.
The poem "Annapurna", which has been Ulysses' sole piece of writing these past twenty years, compares their relationship to the treacherous climb up the slopes of the distant mountain. Every ascent is fraught with risks, as well as the promise of splendor. The goddess Annapurna, who provides nourishment, seems to have abandoned Ulysses. Emma does prepare Ulysses to be with his son by revealing facts both brutal and essential, by offering comfort, and by welcoming back Ulysses' poetic voice. The play raises questions about the possibility of continuing the climb even after an avalanche, being willing to face the worst in ourselves so that we may also know the best in ourselves.
Annapurna is the first show mounted by Jungle Theater under the watch of new Artistic Director, Sarah Rasmussen. After 25 years of leadership by founding Artistic Director Bain Boehlke, Jungle audiences may wonder if the change at the top presages changes on the Jungle stage. Although Annapurna and its artistic team were in place before Ms. Rasmussen came on board, the signs are strong that what is great about the Junglesmart play selection, spot-on casting and incredible attention to design and production values, presented in an intimate jewel box houseremains firmly in place.
Annapurna continues at the Jungle Theater through October 18, 2015. 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN, 55408. Tickets are $28.00 - $48.00. For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com. For group sales call 612-278-0147.
Written by Sharr White; Director and Set Designer: Joel Sass; Costume Designer: Amelia Cheever; Lighting Designer: Barry Browning; Sound Designer: Sean Healey; Wig Designer: Laura Adams; Properties: John Novak; Stage Manager: Katie Hawkinson, Technical Director: John Stillwell.
Cast: Terry Hempleman (Ulysses), Angela Timberman (Emma)