Let's put it this way: John Profeta's performance in "Annapurna" is so on point and visceral that, by the time the show has run its 90-minute course at New Phoenix Theatre you've practically forgotten that his character spent the first five or 10 minutes walking around the stage with his bare backside hanging out. Now that's acting!
Of course, it would all be for naught if Lisa Ludwig were not able to match him scene by scene in this two-hander, balancing his eccentricity with a palpable mixture of pain, love and a tragic truth that she alone contains. No worries. Ludwig is inspiring to watch as the conflicted Emma, a woman who has learned from harsh experience that sometimes the hardest choice is the only choice.
The play opens 20 years after Emma took the couple's 5-year-old son and fled their marriage without a word or a note. Now, Emma has tracked down her ex-husband, Ulysses, to the Colorado Rockies, where he lives like a recluse in a cluttered, vermin-infested trailer. "Holy crap!" Ulysses exclaims upon seeing her at his door. "I know!" she exclaims back, as the reality of the encounter flashes between them.
Things do not go well. Ulysses, a once-famous writer and now-sober alcoholic, is dying of lung cancer, but that is not why he has turned his back on the world. Emma has left her second husband, but that is not why she came back to her first. We soon realize that no one has hurt them as much as they hurt one another, but also that they remain joined by more than a common history, even by more than the son they share.
It is their son, however, who triggers Emma's visit. The young man — he's 25 — is also on his way to Colorado, obsessed about meeting his famous father. Emma has come to head him off, or at least to do damage control before he arrives.
Initially Emma and Ulysses engage in a cautious, caustic banter, interposing wicked wit among revelations that gradually unpeel the previous decades. Where Emma became more stoic, Ulysses appears to have slowly disintegrated, reduced to buying spoiled sausage from the dollar store, relying on an oxygen hose to breathe and waiting for pocket-change royalty checks from his few works still in print.
Playwright Sharr White displays a sure hand with his characters on their gradual journey to some sort of separate peace. He shows no favorite, providing both with rich dialogue and depth. No wonder the late Michael Lodick wanted to produce this play at New Phoenix, and no wonder he cast Profeta and Ludwig to bring it to life.
Before the opening night show, Richard Lambert, executive director of New Phoenix, offered a tribute to Lodick, who died 13 months ago. "He was an artist through and through," Lambert said and added "We're thrilled to honor his memory here tonight" before tossing a kiss and a wave skyward.
Terry Kimmel, who stepped in to direct, could not have gotten more out of his actors. The mountain-trailer set design by Primo Thomas achieves the right measure of mess-meets-wilderness (with carpentry by Dan Divita and Roy Walker; mountains by painter Adam Smith), while Matt Gilbert's costumes revealed everything we were and were not supposed to see of the couple.
Chris Cavanagh did a particularly fine job with the sound and lighting, capturing the ever-shifting moods and the way shadows move across the Rockies, underscored by slide guitar.
Annapurna, a mountain in the Himalayas, is considered to be one of the most dangerous climbs on the planet, which is part of its appeal to adventurers. "Annapurna" also ventures into dangerous territory, and also makes one feel a little bit changed for having been there.
4 stars (out of 4)
Through May 18 in New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Thursday shows are pay-what-you-can; other tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors, online at newphoenixtheatre.org