CHESTER -- It’s been a while since actress Michelle Joyner has performed in a full-length play -- 15 years. She’s done a few play readings here and there in that time. Mostly, she and her husband, director Robert Egan, have been raising their 15-year-old twin sons.
Now, she’s back on stage big time -- Sharr White’s by turns funny and harrowing play, "Annapurna," at Chester Theatre Company, where the two-character play is in the first week of a two-week run at Chester Town Hall that ends July 20.
The production is something of a family affair. Joyner’s husband is directing. Her co-star, Daniel Riordan, has been a close friend for roughly 27 years.
"He’s like my brother," Joyner said during a recent joint telephone interview with Egan and Riordan from the year-round home in Huntington she shares with her husband, their boys and the family dog.
Her parents live in Westfield, where the family moved after Joyner finished grade school in Pittsfield.
With Joyner and Egan spending so much time in Los Angeles, where he is director / producer of the Ojai Playwrights Conference and was, for 20 years, producing artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum and founding artistic director of its New Work Festival, it’s been difficult for Joyner’s parents to see her perform on stage.
"Now they can," Joyner said.
What they will find on the Chester stage is a hard-hitting play about a formerly married couple who have not seen each other in the 20 years since the wife, Emma (Joyner), walked out on her cowboy-poet husband, Ulysses (Riordan), in the middle of the night. As "Annapurna" begins, Emma shows up unexpectedly at Ulysses’ rundown trailer in a mobile home park in Colorado where the dissolute dying man, an alcoholic, is hooked up to an oxygen tank and moving through his remaining days at self-destructive speed.
It is a tough, heartfelt, emotionally brutal, laceratingly funny play about two passionate people who discover that, for all that separates them, there is much that draws them together.
Over the course of the play, Egan said, "we realize how fragile Emma and Ulysses are.
"There is no cheap sexuality or romance here. This is about two people who give each other permission to fight. Like George and Martha in (Edward Albee’s) ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (this play) is about the rituals of fighting."
"Annapurna" premiered at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco and was produced with New Group Off-Broadway earlier this year with its Los Angeles cast -- Megan Mullaly and her real-life husband, Nick Offerman, both of whom Egan and Joyner know well and both of whom Egan and Joyner had seen in Los Angeles.
"As soon as I saw it, I knew (Ulysses) was a great role for Daniel," Joyner said. "Then, I realized (Emma) would be a good role for me."
"The challenge for me in playing Ulysses," Riordan said, "is just trying to find a way to express him without being cartoonish.
"His bold, cocky manner is a bit of a crutch for him. You come to realize he has a sophisticated mind."
With the rights in hand from White, Joyner contacted CTC’s artistic associate Daniel Elihu Kramer, who read the script and gave it to CTC artistic director Byam Stevens who, in turn, agreed it would be a good fit for a 25th anniversary season that celebrates, among other things, "contemporary playwrights across a spectrum of career accomplishments," Stevens says in a CTC news release.
"It all came together," Joyner said. "The bottom line for me was that this was very good casting.
"Daniel and I have chemistry, a shorthand. I can’t imagine doing this play with someone I didn’t know."
"There is a real advantage in having known Michelle as long as we’ve known each other, 27, 28 years," Riordan said. "We work differently; our processes are different. We understand that. But because we know each other so well, even though this is the first Equity production we’ve done together, we are steps ahead. It allows us to be familiar as the rehearsals progress."
"The trust factor is great," Egan said. "We can push each other’s buttons and still talk to each other when it’s all over."