Belated impressions of a Philadelphia premiere

There are just a few days left to catch Annapurna at Theatre Exile, and for some reason probably connected to my travel itinerary, I did not write it up here after attending the April 20 preview performance.


Actors Pearce Bunting and Catharine Slusar, pictured above, truly shine in this play, and I was very surprised to learn they had not worked together before, though they have likely crossed paths in the Philadelphia theatre community. I was interested to learn that the play premiered at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre shortly after I left the Bay Area in 2011 and also enjoyed a concurrent New York run this spring with the starry team of Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman, as The New York Times highlighted prior to that production’s opening. Additionally, I had seen one prior production of the playwright’s work, and wish that I had seen another, and felt that this script offered a more mature and seasoned writing style than the earlier pieces.

In Philadelphia the setting is (presumably) more intimate from the bright lights of Off Broadway. Anything can happen in Theatre Exile’s versatile Studio X space, nestled in to the character – filled and city – wise South Philadelphia neighborhood. This time, the studio was evenly divided between an expansive set, designed by Thom Weaver, and the audience assembled on risers, with the stage management booth beyond that. The noticeably detailed and artfully strewn set evoked curiosity from the first moments of the play, with screen doors, a running shower and faucet, a bed, and several cabinets all contributing to the strong impression of Ulysses (Bunting) living an isolated life on a Colorado mountain.

A brief slapstick introduction, when Ulysses can’t believe that his wife Emma (Slusar) suddenly reappears after a 20 year absence and no contact whatsoever, gives way to a quick shift into a strand of mystery-based drama, as Emma’s motivations for coming to visit become more apparent, though never explicitly spelled out, and we learn more about Ulysses and his choices to live in isolation and face a terminal illness.

It sounds a little bit “movie of the week” cheesiness as I describe the plot there, but the reality of the tale was much more gripping. Aided by Joe Canuso’s tight and specific direction, the two actors subtly juggled power dynamics and held the audience’s attention through the 90 minutes or so of the play, which is not always an easy thing to do. As well, the plot continues to slowly unravel in such a way that the Big Revelation could be considered the start of a wider contemplation and reflection that continues after the lights have gone down on the show.

It was great to “touch in” again with the work of Theatre Exile, where I spent an intense two months working on A Behanding in Spokane exactly two years ago. I was happy to see a healthy audience crowd in place for that Easter Sunday matinee, with a noticeable (and welcome) diverse age range visible, and know that the play has matured even further as it moves towards a sure to be strong finish this Sunday, May 11.