"Annapurna" a devastating drama at NC Stage

‘Annapurna’ a devastating drama at Asheville’s NC Stage

Jim Cavener3:29 p.m. EST February 4, 2015

The word “Annapurna” invokes images of a massive, craggy, ice-covered mountain peak, towering over the monumental terrain, and the play by that name, now at N.C. Stage Co., is indeed set in a grungy trailer park on Colorado’s Western Slope at the base of some pretty massive 11,000 foot mountains. But the title here is more an apt metaphor of the difficult, even dangerous climb in a somewhat perilous personal relationship.

A mountain is seen through the windows of this single-wide trailer. Julie Ross and Catori Swann’s set design and construction is a marvel of messiness. As is this struggling relationship.

N.C. Stage has a knack for finding the esoteric, somewhat unknown theater piece that packs a wallop — between the eyes. This show is surely of that genre. Director and company co-founder Charlie Flynn-McIver knew the playwright during their common years in the New York theater world, and thus there is a personal element in an Asheville production of this devastating script.

What at first seems a shallow struggle of two formerly marrieds, two decades later takes on the profoundly disturbing elements of Edward Albee’s “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with only a modicum of intellectual civility.

The similarity ends with both George (in “Woolf”) and Ulysses (in “Annapurna”) having been professors, and having a raging relationship with a strong-willed woman who is their match in venom and pith. Each show has high drama, painfully poignant moments and powerfully disturbing conflict, written with remarkable authenticity.

Emma in “Annapurna” is surely the equal of Martha in “Woolf,” but in the end of “Annapurna” you wish the best for both protagonists, after what starts out on a Neil Simon level of nastiness — complete with giggles and guffaws — but has completely come about to resemble the darkest elements of Sam Shepard. Unlike Albee’s leads, Emma and Ulysses have great gobs of anger for the other, but don’t sink to tease or torment.

Powerful, painful, poignant, profound and pointedly personal, this is the sort of writing and acting that gets under your skin — and agitates. Despite the early delightfully vulgar and volatile verbal explosions, the rapid repartee that scores with well-aimed zingers, and the consummate clever wordsmithing placed in the mouths of both characters, at the end of the day this is not theater to be enjoyed in the shallow sense.

This is theater to be marveled at and appreciated for its concept, its construction, its casting and its direction — all coming together in an enormously effective, if not pretty, picture.

The playwright is not a household name, and by name quite gender nonspecific. He, Sharr White, ha created only four named scripts, though each has been produced by some prestigious professional companies: Actors Theatre of Louisville, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan Theatre Club, South Coast Repertory and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He has had one actual Broadway production, “The Snow Geese,” and won an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play. White may be a lightweight in fame, but he’s surely a heavyweight in power.

From its impressive reservoir of talent, N.C. Stage has drawn two of its heavyweights to drag us through this dandy drama. Callan White (no relation) has been admired locally in “Stalking the Bogeyman,” “Angels in America,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” Her Emma is a mature woman who cuts to the chase and minces no words. It’s a demanding role — she’s on stage almost the entire show, and capably sparring with a former master of the game.

Should anyone have been conned into thinking that Michael MacCauley has been type-cast in that repeat performance of Jacob Marley at N.C. Stage, this production will put far away such a folly. MacCauley has, of course, been in countless varied roles in a lengthy career, with many shows at Flat Rock Playhouse and N.C. Stage. The man’s repertoire of standouts is lengthy, and Ulysses can be added to the best.

Flynn-McIver has directed these dazzlingly short first two scenes (like, 10 seconds?) with great skill. The shock value of exposed buttocks is not gratuitous, nor exploited beyond necessity, but the timing of the opening bombasts is terrific and the audience response is to lock in to everything that follows, because it could be another dazzler and we would not want to miss a beat in this fast-paced, no intermission spectacle.

Jim Cavener writes on theater for the Citizen-Times. Email him at jimcavener@aya.yale.edu.


What: “Annapurna.”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 22.

Where: North Carolina Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane (off Walnut St. near Rankin Street Garage), Asheville.

Tickets: $14-$32. www.ncstage.org or 239-0263.

(Photo: William Woody / wwoody@citizen-times.com)