Imagine if Sam Shepard had gone seriously off the rails somewhere along the line. Not that Ulysses, the antihero of the play "Annapurna," has accomplished as much as Shepard, but he reminds us of that reckless poetic outlaw type who achieves a measure of fame. And now in Ulysses' case, he has checked out of civilized life and into a trailer house, parked right near the border of insanity.
At the least, Ulysses could be a character in a Shepard play, which makes sense given the debt to Shepard's work that is owed by playwright Sharr White. "Annapurna" opened Friday at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis with bristling work by actors Terry Hempleman and Angela Timberman. The play never feels as dangerous or surprising as Shepard, but White's invocation of painful histories and his blunt dialogue elicit chewy, substantial performances.
Ulysses (Hempleman) is a recovering alcoholic whose disease contributed to a moment that undid his life and drove him to this tin can, where he barks at his dog and waits to die.
Hempleman has made a name playing Shepard characters at the Jungle. Here, we meet his character as a strip of meat, naked but for an apron and slippers. An oxygen can hangs on his back, tied up with rope, and he shares a hair stylist with Ted Kaczynski. He's wearing the apron, he says, because he's frying sausage. Otherwise …
Suddenly, his ex-wife, who ran from him 20 years ago with their son, appears at his door.
Emma, played by Timberman, is 9 miles of rough road — an undernourished whip who nonetheless manages a keen intelligence.
She has come to see Ulysses for two reasons:
Reason one, to head off their son, who is reportedly on his way to the old man's shack.
Reason two, everything else in their lives: his alcoholism, her capacity for finding dangerous men, his literary talent, their "thing" for each other, the coming head of mortality, the need to square all accounts and records — and the necessity of healing.
Both actors get raw physically (nothing more than a bare butt) and psychically. Timberman, in particular, fills the emotional gaps in White's play and relentlessly drives the action forward. She is a caregiver, a nurse who takes charge of Ulysses' situation.
Hempleman is a shade vigorous for a man with tubes up his nose and a bandage on his chest the size of a heating pad. He and director Joel Sass pick up lots of tics and gritty business in a broad performance — a style familiar in Hempleman's better work.
White's play, and Sass' production, have herky-jerky moments. Technically, of course, the work is excellent as usual. John Novak, properties; Barry Browning, lights; Sean Healey, sound and Amelia Cheever, costumes, create work that sums up and feeds the play's energy.
White's play depends on conventions, rather than breaking them. The results, though, provide a satisfying glimpse into people we read about in the newspapers but rarely see.