From the view of his trailer home in Colorado, Ulysses likes to watch mountain climbers give up halfway up the cliff. He is also dying of emphysema. This latter fact does not concern him much until his ex-wife, Emma, who he has not spoken to in 20 years, shows up at his front door.
At the beginning, Sharr White’s Annapurna is disjointed. Ulysses stares at Emma and repeats “holy crap.” Then the lights fade. Over two more short scenes, Emma brings in her suitcases and sets them down amid a deluge of old pizza boxes, crumpled paper and plastic cups. The characters themselves present a striking contrast. Ulysses, played by Jono Bornstein ’18, sports a scraggly beard and an apron — only an apron. Emma, played by Emma Dunlop ’18, wears a pastel cardigan and yells at him to put on some clothes. Directed by Ez Raider-Roth ’19, the play was staged at the Hill theater this past Friday and Saturday.
If the play’s beginning is stunted, so were its characters’ lives. Once an alcoholic and professor of poetry, Ulysses woke up one morning to discover that Emma and his five-year-old son, Sam, were gone. He wrote to them twice a week but never heard from them again, and has since spiraled into a “defiant” destitution. He holds people who own washer-dryers and his “goody two shoes” neighbor, Marty McNealy, in contempt.
Now Emma, after leaving her second husband, has decided to return.
Annapurna revolves in ever-tightening concentric circles around its protagonists’ failed marriage. The short, jumping scenes eventually stop, Ulysses puts on some clothes and the once-couple is forced to confront its situation. Emma heard of Ulysses’ sickness. So did their son. As they await his arrival, they must unpack their painful history. Ulysses remembers nothing from the night Emma left — he was blackout drunk — and he desperately wants to know what happened.
This underlying tension drives the entire play. Throughout its two-hour run time, the former lovers are constantly looking for answers to their pain, oftentimes too guarded to admit how much they have been hurt. And all the while, Ulysses’ sickness hangs over them.
Loss permeates the show. In one poignant moment, Emma confesses, “just because you leave someone doesn’t mean you’re not in a relationship with them somehow for the rest of your life.”
For this emotion to truly hit home, the show relies on two excellent performances by its actors. Bornstein switches easily between caustic and distraught, candid and morose, while Dunlop exudes the exhaustion of someone who has lived a compromised life. Their chemistry shows in the play’s tender moments, when their guarded exteriors melt away to reveal the love and sorrow underneath. Together, they lead the audience through laughter and captivated silence, making the most of a single trailer home that grows less disheveled as they sort through their sadness.
Kenyon’s production of Annapurna shines. Its characters struggle with the failure of their lives, sharing with the audience a palpable grief that builds into the most heartfelt haircut of their lives.
And on the theme of mountains: Ulysses has only written one poem since his wife left — an epic named after the first 8,000-meter peak to be successfully climbed, Annapurna. It is not a victorious story. Ulysses describes to Emma how, when the leader of the climbing party reached the summit, he dropped his gloves and watched them fall down the slope. On the descent, he developed hypothermia and lost his hands.
“This one thing he’s done has ruined him,” he said. This might explain why he likes to watch mountain climbers fail.