By Lynn Venhaus
When a long-dormant couple is forced to look through the rear-view mirror in “Annapurna,” this new chapter is a magnetic combination of lyrical writing and powerhouse performances.
In St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s extraordinary production, formerly married Emma (Laurie McConnell) and Ulysses (John Pierson) convey that once you start that journey into a disturbing past, the unpleasant truths and buried reality collide in revealing and unsettling ways.
Sharr White’s 2011 play is an absorbing, richly textured, whip-smart and witty comedy-drama that places two damaged adults with a shared past together in a small space and lets sparks fly. Ah, the ties that bind.
In this intense one-act duet, Laurie McConnell and John Pierson illustrate why if you are going to put two people in one room, it might as well be them. Grandmasters of acting, this duo flourishes under maestro Annamaria Pileggi’s measured direction.
While the writing is muscular and meaty as each layer is peeled back like the onion Emma slices for a sandwich, they vividly bring these characters to life, bickering and bantering with natural ease.
It is a thing of beauty to watch them do a carefully choreographed dance of anger, pain, sorrow, despair and resignation. And why people who can’t live together can still care about each other. Regrets, they’ve had a few.
Twenty years ago, Emma left Ulysses one night, their 5-year-old son in tow, without a word of explanation. Now, she shows up, unannounced. After all this time, it’s a shock to his system. She finds her ex-husband a mere shell of his former self. Let the rocky trip down memory lane begin.
Once a college literature professor and accomplished writer, Ulee is now a broken-down recluse living off the grid in Paonia, a tiny remote patch of Colorado, with the majestic Rocky Mountains looming outside his rundown trailer park.
While the view outside is splendid, the life inside is squalor. He has long since stopped caring or pretending to – and it’s obvious. So, how did he get here? If he could only remember the details.
Disheveled and disconnected, he lives in deplorable conditions in a decrepit mobile home. His declining health is obvious – past years of alcohol abuse and smoking have exacerbated emphysema, so that he has an oxygen apparatus backpack.
Shaggy-haired Pierson is almost unrecognizable in full slob mode, using body language and a country dialect to add to his complicated portrait of a feeble yet feisty curmudgeon.
Matching him in an expertly calibrated performance, McConnell brings a fully dimensional Emma to the stage. Once a book editor, she raised their son, Sam, now 25, who has more questions than answers about the father he doesn’t know. He has hired a detective – that’s how she found where he was, and Sam may be headed there.
Emma has baggage, too, and not just the suitcases she quickly packed after her hasty decision to track him down, and in effect, leave her second husband. McConnell skillfully expresses quicksilver emotions during these wordy exchanges.
Sharr White made his Broadway debut with “The Other Place,” which earned Laurie Metcalf a 2013 Tony nomination as a brilliant woman facing early dementia. He followed that with “The Snow Geese” starring Mary-Louise Parker and “Annapurna” with Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly. His characters are defined by their circumstances and relationships, with much depth, and the revelations are often much later in the show.
The title refers to the treacherous mountain in the Himalayas, named after the Hindu goddess of food and nourishment. The script exposes trauma and how actions, no matter how small, have consequences.
Pierson and McConnell sustain a remarkable rhythm throughout as they delve into the disintegration of their roles’ marriage. They fluidly move around the grungy interior set designed with his customary attention to detail by Patrick Huber, with assistance from TheatreMarine Productions.
Armed with a spray bottle of cleaning solution, Emma attempts to clean up the grime, kill the ants and make sense of it all. Huber’s lighting design, along with Stephen J. Miller, and sound design by Jeff Roberts – oh, that barking dog! – help establish the tone.
Costume designer Kayla Dressman has outfitted the pair in appropriate casual attire. Warning, there is partial nudity with Ulysses’ backside showing through his apron.
Associate Artistic Director Pileggi knows how to make us care about broken people – she gave us the exquisite “Grey Gardens” for Max and Louie Productions and the searing 2018 “Blackbird” for STLAS, also starring fellow Associate Artistic Director Pierson. Along with assistant director Emily Finck, she has given us a gripping work of theater, with McConnell and Pierson absolutely sublime. To paraphrase playwright White, it is the “them” part of them that I loved.
St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents “Annapurna” Feb. 14 – March 1, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., at the Gaslight Theatre on 538 North Boyle Avenue in the Central West End. There are adult themes and language. For more information, visit www.stlas.org or call 314-458-2978. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.com or available at the box office one hour prior to the performance.