CHESTER -- Redemption -- when and if it comes at all -- comes when you least expect it.
For Ulysses, a cowboy poet and former English professor living in a cramped, rundown mobile home in a trailer park in Paonia, Colorado in playwright Sharr White's "Annapurna," the possibility of redemption comes in the waning days of his life and from a least likely source, his ex-wife, Emma, whom Ulysses has not seen in the 20 years since she took their then 5-year-old son Sam and left their home in the middle of the night and who now comes barreling into his dilapidated home, her worldly goods packed into a couple of bags and suitcases.
"Let's say I'm passing through," she replies to an aggressively asked question from Ulysses.
It should come as no surprise that Emma is intent on anything but passing through. There is unfinished business between them. Based on information from Sam that Ulysses is in failing health and knowing that Sam, who has hired a private detective to find Ulysses, is heading to Paonia to meet the father he has never known, Emma, sensing Ulysses is in difficulty, has decided to show up and, ostensibly, prepare Ulysses for a meeting that could come at any day, any time.
As Emma begins tidying up Ulysses' neglected trailer (evocatively designed by Vicki R. Davis in the less-than-satisfying production "Annapurna" is being given at Chester Theatre Company), it becomes clear that it is not simply a decrepit mobile home that is being straightened out.
For Emma, Sam and Ulysses, time is a governing factor. Ulysses, who is hooked up to a portable oxygen pack, is dying. His lifestyle at this moment seems like a surrender to the inevitable, a letting go. His literary output is drying up -- one poem in the past 10 years, he confesses to Emma. He is living on disability, food stamps and meager royalties from his writing.
Emma (Michelle Joyner) and Ulysses (Daniel Riordan) share a deeply layered, complex relationship that plays out in ways that are, much to White's credit, unanticipated. That, after all the betrayal and crimes of the heart, there is still affection between them is evident. But there is a wariness as well, a caution. Ulysses especially barks and snaps at Emma. Indeed, as played by Riordan, that is all Ulysses seems able to muster -- one long growling bark in a dutiful performance that only barely hints at the emotions beneath Ulysses' stubborn, self-protective manner.
Joyner more successfully navigates the tricky shoals of the delicately balanced conflicts within Emma.
What's missing in director Robert Egan's production is the emotional underpinning; that palpable sense of history; the chemical mix that binds Emma and Ulysses to one another. It's a production that falls short of the promise of White's play.
ANNAPURNA by Sharr White. Directed by Robert Egan; set design, Vicki R. Davis; lighting design, Lara Dubin; costume design, Charles Schoonmaker; sound design, Tom Shread. Through July 20: 8 Wed., Thu.-Sat. Mats.: 2 Thu., Sun. Chester Theatre Company, Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester. Tickets: $30, $35. (1-800) 595-4849. 1 hour 34 minutes
Emma Michelle Joyner
Ulysses Daniel Riordan