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Annapurna
by Sharr White
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 15, 2020

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio proves true to its name with its latest production, Sharr White’s Annapurna. The next in the company’s season of two-character plays, the highlight here is on the acting, and it is superb. With two excellent local performers headlining, this proves to be a compelling and memorable tale of relationship, regret, and a wide range of emotions, deliberately and expertly paced.

The structure of this play is especially compelling, as we see a whole journey taking place on stage, from first (re-) meeting through to a series of well built-up revelations. The first words of play are “holy crap!” They are uttered by reclusive writer Ulysses (John Pierson) upon the sudden arrival of his ex-wife Emma (Laurie McConnell), who abruptly left him 20 years before along with their then 5-year-old son. The beginning is understandably volatile, as a mix of pent-up emotions and a clutter of stories and conflicting memories emerge and, gradually and naturally, the truth comes out. The combination of short scenes punctuated by blackouts along with longer periods in which we see these two characters getting to know one another again is particularly effective, as are the stellar portrayals here. There’s a story here of relationship, regret, and “what ifs”, as well as buried secrets and the hope for understanding, if not reconciliation. It’s a fascinating show, focusing on these two multi-layered characters and their ever evolving relationship, as they rely on old patterns and occasionally try to establish a new one. The title comes from the mountain of the same name, and idea of climbing such a difficult peak serves as an ideal metaphor for the relational journey depicted in this play.

The range of emotions covered here is great, as is the credible build-up of these feelings and the truths that are uncovered in this relationship. It’s something of a master class in acting from both Pierson as the guarded, sometimes volatile Ulysses, and McConnell as Emma, who is determined, conflicted, and secretive in her own way. The interplay between these two immensely talented performers forms the heart of this play, and their chemistry is palpable and stunning. I’m especially impressed by how subtle some of the emotions and thought processes are conveyed, especially by McConnell as Emma listens to Ulysses’s stories and tries to decide what to believe and how much to tell him. The pacing is just right, as well, letting the audience witness the developments and the rawness of the emotion without pushing it too far.

As for the production values, they are excellent, as well, making excellent use of the small stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theater and bringing Ulysses’s messy old trailer to life by means of Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. Huber and Steven J. Miller also provide effective evocative lighting, and there’s also strong sound design by Jeff Roberts. Kayla Dressman’s costumes fit well for the characters and the tone of the play, and Jenny Smith’s props design also works well.

This can be a tough play in terms of subject matter, touching on alcoholism, domestic violence, and more. It’s full of regret and loss, but also there are moments of hope. It’s a worthwhile artistic journey, with highly commendable performances from its two leads. Annapurna is quite a journey, and the performances especially make it more than worthwhile.

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Annapurna at the Gaslight Theater until March 1, 2020

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The Other Place
by Sharr White
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio Theatre
January 24th, 2014

Kate Levy Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Kate Levy
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Other Place is at once a play, a location, and a symbol.  The title of the Rep Studio’s remarkable current production refers to a second home on Cape Cod owned by 52-year-old pharmaceutical research scientist Juliana Smithton (Kate Levy) and her oncologist husband, Ian (R. Ward Duffy).  It’s a place that represents both nostalgia and regret for Juliana, as well as serving as the center of the unfolding mystery of what is happening in her mind throughout the course of the play, and what is revealed is not always easy to deal with, to say the least.   It’s a fascinating exploration of the workings and unravelings of the human mind, brought to life boldly and vividly by a superb cast in a way that is very powerful and profoundly affecting.  This is one of those rare shows that leaves me so stunned that I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut (in a metaphorical sense)—and that’s a good thing.

The play begins with Juliana recounting an “episode” that happened during a lecture about a new drug that’s being developed to treat dementia, and the story unfolds in non-linear fashion from there, as Juliana’s perceptions of her world are challenged by those around her, including her increasingly frustrated husband, and her doctor (one of several roles played by Amelia McClain).  Juliana assumes that her confusion and disorientation are the result of brain cancer, but then many things Juliana believes are called into question, including her relationship with her daughter (also McClain) and some key events in her family’s past that lead to some intense revelations as the story unfolds.  As Juliana’s perceptions clash with those of the world around her, the drama becomes increasingly intense and confrontational, leading to some harrowing dramatic moments that are brutally honest and sometimes difficult to watch, as Juliana’s unnamed disorder sometimes incites her to behave in confusing and even cruel ways, especially toward her husband and doctor. A visit to the “Other Place” is the key to unlocking secrets of Juliana’s present reality as well as her past regrets.

This is a four-person cast, but the central focus is undeniably Juliana. It’s such a colossal, challenging role in that she is rarely offstage and the play delves so thoroughly into her thoughts, feelings and perceptions in such a raw, unflinching way that I’m sure it requires a great deal of energy to perform this role night after night, and Levy gives a wondrous performance. It’s a fully realized, multi-layered characterization that shows us the many sides of Juliana.  She can be tough, crass, snarky and even cruel, but that’s masking a very real sense of vulnerability and fear that Levy brings out more and more as the play develops, and strikingly enough, she gains the audience’s sympathy mainly by not inviting it, presenting a portrait of a woman who wants to appear to be so assertive and together at the beginning, but then lets us watch as her composure completely falls apart and wish for her to find a way to put the pieces back together.

Levy holds the stage and the audience’s attention masterfully, and the rest of the cast lends excellent support.  Duffy as Ian is a solid presence, and his scenes with Levy crackle with tension.  He paints a vivid picture of Ian’s increasing exasperation as well as his clearly evident underlying love for Juliana.  As confused and wounded as Ian is, he doesn’t want to give up on Juliana, and this determination is convincingly played by Duffy.  McClain, in various roles, also leaves a strong impression and seamlessly shifting from character to character as the story demands, and she shines along with Levy in a raw and emotionally devastating key moment in the show (as an unnamed woman who is confronted in a startling way by Juliana), bringing out much honesty and sympathy as the reality of Juliana’s situation is brought to light. Clark Scott Carmichael also gives a strong performance in various roles including a former student of Juliana’s and a supportive nurse.

Technically, this show is a wonder as well, contributing to the drama of the production by providing just the right atmosphere.  Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s set is an ideally suited backdrop to the proceedings, with its backdrop of well-ordered wall tiles on one side that are arranged to appear much less ordered on the other end, possibly representing Juliana’s dissent into mental and emotional chaos. There’s also a  well-appointed modular section that pulls out to serve as the cozy Cape Cod cottage.  This play also makes excellent use of projections (designed by William Cusick) to serve as illustrations for Juliana’s lecture and then to underscore various moments in the story, particularly affectingly at the end.

Overall, this is a very well-written and structured, impeccably staged play that more than adequately portrays one woman’s journey through the clouded world of an illness that affects her very perception of reality, and it was quite an experience to watch. This is a truly unforgettable production with a top-flight cast and one of the most memorable individual performances (Levy’s) that I’ve witnessed in quite a while.  It’s not an easy play to watch at times because of the subject matter and the confrontational nature of the more emotional scenes, but it’s a thoroughly worthwhile experience that draws a rich portrait of this character and the world around her. It’s a descent into chaos, but the impression we are left with is that there is some hope in the midst of the chaos, and that makes this production all the more rewarding.

Amelia McClain, Kate Levy, R. Ward Duffy Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Amelia McClain, Kate Levy, R. Ward Duffy
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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