Theater Review: 'Annapurna,' Vermont Stage | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Annapurna,' Vermont Stage

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Chris Caswell and J. Stephen Brantley in Annapurna - COURTESY OF LINDSAY RAYMONDJACK
  • Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack
  • Chris Caswell and J. Stephen Brantley in Annapurna

Their marriage ended in a thunderclap 20 years ago, but the reverberations are still echoing for the two characters in Sharr White's 2011 play Annapurna, now at Vermont Stage. The repartee is funny from start to finish, but the play builds from a witty comedy to a taut drama, propelled by the crisp intelligence of the characters.

Exactly what happened to make Emma walk out on Ulysses, taking their 5-year-old son with her, is a dark, insistent mystery for the audience. But the play's real focus is not on plot but on characters. They struggle with old secrets and new fears about the future, yet it's the present that matters. Indelible performances by Chris Caswell and J. Stephen Brantley rivet viewers to the here and now.

Ulysses lives in a ratty, end-times trailer in the wilds of Colorado. It's littered with trash, overrun with ants and roaches, and somehow grimy with solitude itself. He went off the grid years ago and doesn't answer inquiries from his publisher, who has stopped waiting for more from this cowboy poet and former academic. Decades after losing his marriage, Ulysses has become an eccentric recluse who can barely manage a relationship with a dog.

White lets the story tell itself in little jolts, without traditional exposition. We first see Ulysses frying sausage on a hot plate, wearing nothing but an apron around his waist and a backpack containing a portable oxygen supply. A bandage on his chest competes with large, glorious tattoos. The door bangs open, and Emma arrives with a suitcase the size of a filing cabinet.

She's tracked Ulysses down, and we'll eventually learn why he needs the oxygen and why she's traveled so far after so long. In that small trailer, they'll face each other with anger, humor and despair as they investigate what still binds them together. The granular details in the text let the actors show the reality of a long relationship.

As Ulysses, Brantley uses a faraway stare and a meticulously cultivated cynicism to express the character's decisive split with the world. Caswell shows Emma's fury by leveling a gaze at Ulysses that would demolish a less armor-clad mortal, then lets a hint of her unquenched love for him rise like mist. Both actors are subtle yet piercingly clear.

The play soars on the way they work together. Pauses are chiseled out of the powerful connection between the two actors. To be silent onstage is to trust that something happens when an audience watches a thought form. In this production, we see Caswell and Brantley achieve every comic and tragic emotional beat together.

Director Susan Palmer created the conditions for that collaboration with sure-handed blocking, which sometimes sets the characters on a collision course and sometimes lets them pull away. It takes courage, for both actor and director, to let a look simmer or a gesture hold attention on its own. Above all, Palmer nurtured trust between the two actors.

A great performance is a flag planted in the present: This is happening now. Brantley and Caswell suspend themselves in the present so that viewers can let go of everything else. At Thursday's performance, the audience was hushed, sharing a common experience.

As deep as the emotion runs in Annapurna, the play's fuel is humor. The characters never let it go, even as they try to reconcile the past and accept a bleak future. As Emma puts on rubber gloves to tackle the squalor of the trailer and Ulysses nurses both guilt and defiance, their clever comebacks don't stop. The marriage is over, but the attraction that launched it still sparkles in their wit.

The dilapidated trailer that scenic designer Jeff Modereger has created anchors the action in what amounts to a diary of Ulysses' life spent baking in a hot metal box and staring out a window at a mountain. The overstuffed shelves, sad little kitchen and tiny bathroom show us just how it feels to pace back and forth, alone.

Lighting designer Sam Biondolillo registers changes of mood strongly. It's a relief that he forgoes strict realism in the tiny space to let viewers experience the rising heat of the day, not to mention the wide emotional spectrum of the characters.

Costume designer Jess Nguyen contrasts Ulysses, in derelict cutoffs and a torn checked shirt, with Emma, in outfits radiating respectability. Emma's clothes show the faraway world that Ulysses has left; his show how he's learned to stop caring about leaving it.

The play's title refers to the Himalayan mountain that serves as the setting for a story Ulysses tells, serving up a metaphor the play can't quite use. It seems the members of the first expedition to summit the peak suffered severe frostbite and gangrene, with the worst case befalling a climber who lost his gloves. As Ulysses tells it, this is the story of a man making a single mistake, watching his gloves tumble down the mountain. It's a nice expression of loss, but it doesn't happen to fit Ulysses' life, let alone help viewers see him clearly.

White doesn't need this metaphor to keep his characters fascinating. His dialogue is sharp, exciting playwriting. The characters lunge and parry with hard-earned wisdom about each other, and some of those lunges hit. The characters can draw blood; they can sulk and turn away and then return for more. Throughout, their need for each other keeps them connected.

The play isn't a simple story of lost love. The definition of a sentimental story is one with a preordained emotional outcome. White has fashioned something more surprising, and Caswell and Brantley bring it to life. These characters are on their own map, and the peak they're trying to climb has no name.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Present Tense"