Review: “Annapurna” teaches us about the emotional summits in our own lives

Review: "Annapurna" teaches us about the emotional summits in our own lives

Syracuse Stage presents the touching play that manages to pack humor, pathos, and even mystery into the story of an ex-couple beaten down by circumstance.
Published: March 18, 2021

I was never more scared in a theater than when I was watching Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary about climber Alex Honnold scaling El Capitan in Yosemite without ropes. I knew Alex survived the climb — he was actually at the screening that night, very much alive — but still, every wide shot of him up there, a tiny speck on that magnificent rock face was accompanied by a collective, white-knuckled gasp from the audience.

It’s a dangerous business, climbing. A bloody-fingered, broken-boned, high-possibility-of-death sort of business. It kind of makes you wonder, as a person not compelled to participate in such boundary-pushing feats of human achievement: Why?

Some people are just wired differently, I guess. People like Maurice Herzog, the French explorer who summited Annapurna –– a Himalayan massif that peaks at over 8,000 meters — a full three years before Edmund Hillary would make history on Everest. Herzog chronicled his adventures in a bestselling book that brought him wealth and fame, though the climb cost him all of his toes, and most of his fingers.

Annapurna the play isn’t so much about climbing in a literal sense, as it is about the summits in our own lives, and the price we pay in order to reach them. Playwright Sharr White has composed a riotous two-hander that balances this massive metaphor with the tiny details that make up our days — relationships, illnesses, addictions, successes, defeats, and the seemingly minor moments that dictate our paths for decades to come.

Somewhere in the Colorado Rockies, in a rundown trailer, retired professor and poet Ulysses (Stephan Wolfert) is paid a surprise visit by his ex-wife Emma (Dawn Stern). The two have not seen one another in 20 years, ever since Emma packed up their son Sam and bolted in the middle of the night

Stephan Wolfert and Dawn Stern in the cramped trailer set
Stephan Wolfert and Dawn Stern play a divorced couple reunited after 20 years in Sharr White's "Annapurna"

The blood between these two is bad, to put it lightly, and Ulysses is at first shocked and then incredulous about Emma’s sudden return. As he says, “Don’t pretend you haven’t been given the finger without taking the whole hand.”

It’s eventually revealed that Emma has come because she knows that Ulysses doesn’t have long to live. He’s hooked to an oxygen tank as if he were setting out to climb the mountains outside his window; but no, he’s dying from lung cancer, and even the exertion of laughing can send him into a coughing fit, in desperate need of his inhaler.

Annapurna is thinly-plotted, claustrophobically so given the cramped trailer setting of this Syracuse Stage production, as directed by Robert Hupp. But the beauty of White’s script is that it doesn’t rely on big dramatics to tell the story here — it is a play carefully built on poetry mined from the banal and the quotidian.

After discovering the sausage he bought at the Dollar Store — seemingly a good deal for just a buck — has gone rancid, Ulysses laments, “Think you finally caught a break, and it’s not a break at all. It’s just a trap. A hope-trap.” Later, when Emma says that Sam has thought of his father as a Superman after all these years, banished to some faraway castle, Ulysses sharply retorts, “We’re all in trouble if I’m their Ubermensch.”

Watching these two people who’ve been separated by decades navigate familiarity, tiptoe around grievances, and rip open old wounds is thrilling. As staged in the close quarters of this streaming production — the action is filmed by Katherine Freer with set design by Mara Tunnicliff — it is a literal pas de deux (at one point Emma has to limbo beneath Ulysses’ breathing tube in order to reach the other side of the trailer) that manages humor, pathos, and even mystery inside it’s tight 87-minute runtime.

Both Wolfert and Stern —married in real life and performing in their own home-turned-set — paint these roles with the bruised colors of people beaten down by circumstance, struggling towards an emotional peak they aren’t sure they have strength left to summit.

Though for all the realism within the performances, the camera does pick up on some obvious fakery. When Emma pulls out what is meant to be 17 grand in cash, it looks like a stack of lime green construction paper, sandwiched between two dollar bills. Later you can see the “Wegmans” label on the soda can Ulysses uses to cool Emma’s neck in the mountain heat. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Colorado anymore.

But then again, such is life: When we look too closely at something, it’s often revealed to be shabbier than we originally thought. That’s the claim Annapurna makes, anyway. You can reach the top, sure, there’s just no guarantee you’ll like what you see.

Annapurna will be available as video-on-demand March 17 – April 4.