The first thing you will see in Third Rail's latest production is a naked, middle-aged man wearing only a cloth crotch guard, Tarzan style. Next, there will be a lot of heated babbling between two old people who you correctly assume are ex-lovers. This play is a lot like an episode of Grace and Frankie set inside a cluttered trailer, but its two characters are worth a trip to the theater.
There's a phrase that people who fail at getting over someone love to resurrect: If you love something, set it free, and if it comes back to you, it's yours. In some ways, Annapurna is a textbook example of this commonly Googled quote.
Emma, a woman ambiguously around 55, leaves her new husband to drop in on her unwelcoming ex, Ulysses, who lives in a trailer in the mountains where the threat of cockroaches is so high that he hides his inhaler in a cookie jar. Ulysses is life-threateningly sick and appears to be on his way out. Though Emma left Ulysses in the middle of the night twenty years prior, the fact that she still loves him is an elephant in the room so visible it practically sprays the audience with sewer water. So, why did Emma leave 20 years ago with the couple's 5-year-old son? Keyword here: son. He is the crux of the play, though he doesn't once appear on the stage, which looks like the interior of a 1980s trailer, cluttered with plastic bags and dirty clothes.
Turns out that Ulysses had a drinking problem, which made him insanely agro. One night, Emma returned home to find Ulysses blacked out, huddled over her son's bed where the boy was so badly beaten that he became permanently deaf in one ear. Ulysses was so shit-faced that he doesn't remember any of this. So, for twenty years, he thought that Emma left because she was a cold-hearted bitch who thought she could do better. He was wrong, and in fact, her new husband is abusive too, but towards her.
Love makes people do stupid things. Some audience members might consider leaving one abusive husband to crawl back to a different one pretty dumb. But Karen Trumbo sells Emma as a woman who is suffering vicariously through her son's daddy issues. With frank tenderness, she makes Ulysses a sandwich and also insults him for morphing into an oafish pariah. Though Bruce Burkhartsmeier's Ulysses is difficult to forgive at times, the actor himself is nearly faultless. His chemistry with Trumbo is so apparent through dialogue alone that the audience doesn't even need, or want, a kiss. And they won't get one.
It is clear that Emma loves Ulysses, but reuniting is not easy. Many of us say that we never want to see a former lover again (or God help us, we'll…). In reality, we probably have a deep desire to rehash and dissect our separation over a La Croix. Annapurna is largely a cathartic experience. The theater toyed with giving away tickets, free drinks and even a hotel stay to attendees who brought their ex to the show, but decided against that idea.
For Ulysses and Emma, their reunion seems complicated, but the play's solution is not. As Annapurna makes us question what is more sacred—motherly instinct or true love—the play reminds us that forgiveness is just as important as anger. All of the feelings, good and bad, grow out of love. That is what makes the pain so great to begin with.
See it: Annapurna is at Imago Theater, 17 SE 8th Ave., 503-235-1101. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday and 2 pm Sunday, Aug. 5-27. $25-42.50.