Husbands, wives and children are key elements in two provocative productions currently on Cincinnati stages, as are unexpected visits and the resulting confrontations. Sharr White’s Annapurna, at Ensemble Theatre, employs a mysterious title: Annapurna is the Hindu goddess of nourishment. It’s also the name of one of the most dangerous peaks in the Himalayas. And it’s the title of an epic work-in-progress by the play’s Ulysses (Dennis Parlato), a washed-up poet who’s been writing and barely surviving in his ramshackle trailer in the remote mountains of Western Colorado. Both he and his onetime wife Emma (Regina Pugh) undertake their own treacherous ascent, revisiting a relationship that ended years earlier in an avalanche of trauma due to his drinking.
They’ve been out of touch for two decades — although he’s tried to reach her — and her surprise arrival after so many years is not warmly welcomed. Emma’s relationship with their now adult son is not good, and he’s likely on his way to meet Ulysses, the father he’s never known, a man trapped with failing health in a desolate trailer park. When Emma walks in unannounced, Ulysses is buck-naked except for a cooking apron and a bandage covering his chest; he’s frying rancid sausage purchased at a Dollar Store to feed his agitated dog.
Emma spends much of the 100-minute play trying in vain to restore order to his grungy trailer. Brian c. Mehring’s corrugated-metal framed set with detailed trash by Shannon Rae Lutz adds dimension to their conflict as the couple wrestles with the past and wonders what the future might hold.
Parlato gives a fearless performance as a damaged man in a free fall toward death, desperately striving to hold onto something meaningful. Pugh’s Emma is more nuanced and impenetrable; it’s hard to imagine what has drawn her back to him and why she would put up with his dissolute ways and bitter attitude. But these two fine actors reveal an undertow of emotion that their characters cannot deny. These are people who are not easy to like, but they are fascinating to watch.
• Venerable playwright Terrence McNally’s 2014 drama Mothers and Sons at the Playhouse tackles some very thorny issues, past and present. It’s about the impact of the death of André, who died of AIDS 20 years earlier. Katharine (Stephanie Berry), his mother, has refused to let got of the circumstances, while his partner Cal (Alvin Keith) has moved beyond his grief and is now married to Will (Ben Cherry), and they have a young son, Bud (Austin Vaughan). Katharine’s impulsive, unannounced visit to see Cal lights the fuse on a series of explosive confrontations that reveal long-harbored attitudes and judgmental behavior.
Berry’s performance as Katharine is both dignified and harsh. It’s apparent why her inflexible relationship with André was difficult; her inability to forgive makes her all the more dislikable. But Berry mitigates Katharine with self-loathing tightness; she recognizes how horrendously judgmental she’s been, but cannot quite admit her fault.
As Cal, Keith portrays a man torn between his loving memories of André, now perhaps romanticized in the past, and his newfound happiness with a family. He resents Katharine’s reminders of the narrower world of the 1990s that disrespected their relationship, not to mention the callous public health attitudes that made it impossible for André to survive. Katharine’s visit brings back past tragedies and sadness, momentarily threatening the balance of his present life.
Despite these daunting circumstances, Mothers and Sons resolves pleasantly, but only after McNally’s script has marched through numerous arguments, dissertations and recriminations. McNally’s script moves rapidly from one angry sparring match to another without satisfactorily resolving most of them, so the final resolution feels forced. Nevertheless, the committed performances by the three adult actors (as well as the rapid-fire questions and opinions by Vaughan as 8-year-old Bud, who innocently probes Katharine) — astutely directed by associate artist Timothy Douglas — suggest the possibilities that love and thoughtful parenting might bring to today’s complex social milieu.
ANNAPURNA continues at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati through April 10. MOTHERS & SONS, at the Cincinnati Playhouse, closes on April 17.