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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

People come to you. They care for you and you punish them for it. — Ulysses

Michelle Joyner and Daniel Riordan (Photo by Rick Teller)
Sharr White's dissection of marital failure and regrets, opens against a mountainous backdrop which provides a sharp contrast to the detritus strewn trailer park home where the action of the play is confined. The furniture is the stuff that is often on the curb with a "Free sign. Everything has seen better days including Ulysses, a cowboy-poet who retreated here after a battle for sobriety and a bout of emphysema and cancer which he is not winning.

Into this wreck of a home and human life charges Emma, Ulysses' former wife, with several suitcases, $17,000 and twenty years of an unfinished story.

Through clean, crisp dialogue it is revealed that he was a professor and published author, she an editor. There was a child, Sam, who is never seen, but is at the core of the mystery. What happened to him one night twenty years ago which served as the catalyst for the disintegration of this union?

Now Ulysses and Emma are in a 90-minute struggle, alternatively humorous and bitter, trying to fathom what drove them apart. Director Robert Egan has, along with set designer Vicki Davis, created a claustrophobic atmosphere which underscores the characters' inability to escape their previous life.

Emma is in a cleaning frenzy because Sam is due to arrive for a belated reunion with his father. She is trying to clean up the trailer and their past before he shows up.

To say that Ulysses is less than pleased to see Emma is an understatement as his first words are "Holy crap!" and he orders her to leave, but she begins to unpack and reorganize undeterred by his objections. A vase of plastic flowers, more suitcases, food — Emma is here for the duration. But why? She has fled a second marriage, much as she did the first, and returned to wallow through the murky history of their embattled relationship which is slowly unmasked as the couple dances around the edge of acrimonious longing. So, what was it that really happened? What one episode triggered a catastrophic cascade of further problems, misunderstandings anger and illness?

Ulysses' narration of Maurice Herzog's climb of the Himalayan peak, the 8000 meter Annapurna in 1950, is the linchpin to this play's mystery. Herzog's one tragic mistake metaphorically represents the circumstances which shattered a family and echoes throughout their subsequent years. MIT's Edward Lorenz put forth the hypothesis of the Butterfly Effect which in Chaos Theory is the idea that an unexplained or unknown event can spark a situation that will lead to drastic change.

Annapurna, like Lorenz's theory cannot actually supply us with answers; rather it is the aftermath of the incident which could not be foreseen that the survivors or witnesses must contend with.

Ulysses (Daniel Riordan) is gruff and grimy. Philosophically he is facing death and failure with a sort of puzzled detachment. Emma (Michelle Joyner) efficiently optimistic, confronts inevitability by scrubbing and organizing. Why has she really returned? Is it for Ulysses, Sam or herself?

Like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the couple contends with their past in a futile and occasionally comic attempt to pinpoint the exact instant that led to this black hole of misery. At times funny, sardonic and poignant, White's play plumbs the what-if's of their lives. The poetic beauty of the last scene attests to the predicament we call the human condition. Is there one defining moment of our lives which holds the secret of our future and can we ever recognize it?

The set by Vicki Davis, Lara Dubin's lighting and the costumes designed by Charles Schoonmaker along with the sound design by Tom Shread support this lyrical production by complementing the wistful western motif of the just plain down and out making a last stand.

White's The Other Place was performed at Barrington Stage Company earlier this summer ( review ). as well as on and Off-Broadway ( review). As part of Chester's 25th anniversary season a celebration of contemporary playwrights is a chance to further follow the development of this playwright's career.

Annapurna by Sharr White Director: Robert Egan Cast: Michelle Joyner (Emma); Daniel Riordan (Ulysses) Set Design: Vicki Davis Lighting Design: Lara Dubin Sound Design: Paul Shread Costumes: Charles Schoonmaker Stage Manager: Patrick Lanczki Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA (413)-354-7770 Previews: July 10-12; Opening July 13; closes July 20 Reviewed by Gloria Miller at the first preview performance on July 10
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