By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The opening scene of Annapurna is a classic sitcom setup: a baggage sight gag. Ex-wife barges into ex-husband’s digs, dragging enough suitcases for a six-week spa tour of Europe and says she’s “passing through.”
If this were Neil Simon, it would be the Plaza (and her startled ex would be smoking a post-coital cig, with company). In the Sharr White two-hander that opened in John Hudson’s Shadow Theatre production Thursday as a vehicle for two seminal Shadow contributors, it’s a grotty trailer in the middle of nowhere at the foot of the Rockies. And the ex-husband is alone, wearing nothing but an apron, a chest bandage, and an oxygen tank.
Ulysses (Shaun Johnston) hasn’t seen Emma (Coralie Cairns) in 20 years, since the fateful night she vanished, with their five-year-old son. And this unexpected reunion doesn’t exactly exude warmth, witness a series of short, funny scenes, with amusing blackouts.
Emma is strangely aggressive about the derelict state of Ulysses’ surroundings, which she immediately sets about scrubbing. Oddly, she seems more surprised by his minimalist attire than by the evidently terminal state of his health (or is the oxygen tank the elephant in the room?). Cairns attacks the comedy with bustling sarcasm and outsized sitcom double-takes: “You bought meat? At the dollar store?”
For his part Ulysses the cowboy hermit is mystified and riled by the unexplained intrusion. And Johnston, Shadow Theatre’s co-founder and an actor who seems to have a natural affinity for broody muscular lone-rider characters, bites into the role with a certain grim wit and sardonic defiance: gallows humour with the rope in plain sight. The play gives him some juicey black comedy lines, and Johnston lands the pauses expertly.
Revelations about the characters and their pasts, shared and separate, ensue. They’re doled out on a draconian quota system designed, rather too obviously, to delay the play’s number one mystery, often referenced then elaborately evaded: So what happened 20 years ago? Hey, can I make you a sandwich while I don’t answer?
In short, you’ll have to wait (and wait) to find out. The reveal keeps getting postponed, for reasons that remain obscure. Ulysses is a poet and former professor, an alcoholic with gaping holes in his memory who gave up booze in favour of the smokes that are killing him. Why Emma disappeared without trace is something he doesn’t remember, as he tells her multiple times. She keeps withholding the information — mainly, it seems, so there can be 90 minutes’ worth of play. That the actors are able to wrest emotional heft from the moment, when it finally comes, is a credit to both.
The other mystery of Annapurna is how these two were ever a couple. But that’s one of its insights into love, time, and memory — what can be lost and what can’t, no matter how hard you try. One of the production’s successes is the way affection gradually seeps into the starchy fabric of acrimony and grievances. Later Emma, softening, will remember the fateful moment of attraction: “…I’ve seen everything in the world but I’ve never seen a cowboy before, not a real one, and you look up and give me that … squint.”
Annapurna is named for a Himalayan peak of formidable aspect, with a history of failed climbs and retreats. And Daniel Van Heyst’s design, a cluttered trailer interior dwarfed by a stunning Rockies vista, beautifully lit to conjure the passage of dawn into dusk, make of those attempted ascents something of beauty. With relationships as with mountains, a little thing, a foothold lost, an overload of baggage, will send you tumbling down forever.
Written by: Sharr White
Directed by: John Hudson
Starring: Coralie Cairns, Shaun Johnston
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through Feb. 5
Tickets: 780-434-5564, TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)