10/10: Climb Every Mountain, at NJ Rep

Gina Bonati and Peter Galman star as an estranged couple reuniting under less than romantic circumstances, when Sharr White’s ANNAPURNA goes up this week at New Jersey Repertory Company. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

It’s the trip back down that’s the real bear: just ask the members of the 1950 expedition to the Himalayan peak Annapurna I — a team that was notoriously light on supplies when it made its ascent, and even lighter on digits and appendages when they made it back to France.

Better still, ask Emma and Ulysses, the long-separated spouses at the heart of Annapurna, the play by Sharr White that makes its East Coast premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Reunited after decades under less than ideal circumstances, the couple have left the emotional summit of their relationship far behind — and are just trying to negotiate the home stretch of their journey along a treacherous downward slope of sickness, need and unfinished business.

“Home” in this case is a dismal trailer park in rural Colorado, where terminally ill Ulysses (Peter Galman), “a recovering drinker who in a past life was a Western cowboy-poet and professor of English,” whiles away his hard-luck final days in the dubious care of “his ungrateful dog and his relentless do-gooder neighbor.” Enter Emma (Gina Bonati), the wife who walked out on him twenty years ago, and you’ve got one of the character-driven, darkly comic slices of wounded Americana that NJ Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas has long specialized in.

Annapurna originally debuted in San Francisco, where White recently looked in on a West Coast production of his acclaimed drama The Other Place — a work that comes to Broadway (complete with Tony-buzzworthy star Laurie Metcalf) for an engagement that begins in December. Before the critics start in to engraving the award nameplates, local audiences have the opportunity to tune into the work of this playwright that we’ll surely be hearing more of in the months to come — and upperWETside took the opportunity to speak to Sharr White at his home in Cold Spring, NY…

Sharr White discusses the East Coast premiere of ANNAPURNA, the second of his plays to be produced at NJ Rep — the first being 2010’s Sunlight, a drama set amid the treacherous peaks and rarefied air of big-time tenured academia.

upperWETside: So what’s the significance of the title ANNAPURNA? I’m aware that the play is set in a remote trailer park, but it’s not quite THAT remote, is it?

SHARR WHITE: The play has a mountain setting, but what it has to do with Annapurna is in a metaphorical sense, and it comes from a book that I read.

My brother, who’s an avid back-country snowboarder, into extreme sports, gave me a copy of the book Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. It’s a really epic story, from a time when guys like Herzog and his team would set up base camp and drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes. They didn’t dress properly, they didn’t bring extra oxygen, they exhausted their resources and they were completely unprepared for the descent. Herzog lost one of his gloves, and would wind up losing most of his fingers to frostbite.

What struck me most was the final line of the book: ‘there are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.’  I found in that a metaphor for the relationship between this couple, who are estranged and come back together after years and years.

Our curiosity’s also piqued by the choice of Ulysses for the male character’s name…would that be a nod to Homer or to James Joyce? 

Definitely not Joyce — I thought it would be fun to give the character the name of an epic adventurer. Something that suggests poetry and myth. His life has been all about punishment — it’s the nature of Ulysses to be self-destructive — but as flawed as he is, he’s also brilliant and beautiful.

And I have to ask about the female character Emma, as well. Are we in Jane Austen territory here? 

No, nothing like that. I just thought the name fit the character; she’s a sensible person who left in the middle of the night years ago and took their son with her — and now she’s gone back to this place at the end of the earth; way out on the western slopes of the Rockies in Colorado. She’s someone whose single moment of weakness was falling in love with Ulysses.

The idea that there’s something that persists in even the most damaged relationship, that continues to bond two people together, is something that a lot of dramatists have debated through their characters. Without knowing how this plot plays out, I’m thinking that you’ve come down firmly on the side of those who believe that a commitment is more than just a ceremonial vow. 

Sometimes an estranged spouse will come back and care for a former spouse in their hour of need…a lot of the idea behind the play is based on an old friend of mine, who moved back to Florida, to care for a husband with emphysema.

There really is this idea that every major relationship is based on commitment; the same kind of commitment you find in extreme sports. There’s always a moment — in sports, in mountain climbing, in relationships — where you’ve gone so far that you can’t go back. And that’s kind of what’s at work here.

Annapurna presents matinee and evening previews on October 11 and 12 ; opens October 13 at 8pm, presents a matinee performance on October 14, then continues until November 18 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information can be obtained here