In the 10 years they’ve known each other, actors Charles Fugate and Vanessa Severo have crossed paths numerous times — but never like this.
Fugate is known for playing clean-cut nice guys — narrator Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol,” for example; Severo for playing big emotional characters, like Anita in “West Side Story.” But in “Annapurna,” they’re playing against type: a grungy, broken man and his emotionally closed-off ex-wife.
“These are two roles that Charles and Vanessa would not typically be looked at for,” said director Rusty Sneary, “but I think they’re perfect.
“Being able, as an audience, to sit back and study two actors that are this great do their craft but also then lose those actors that you’re used to seeing into two characters that are written exceptionally well — it’s a good one.”
Longtime friends and collaborators Sneary, Fugate and Severo will open the Living Room’s new production Sept. 30, a 75-minute exploration into love, loss and the strength of shattered relationships. Severo is Emma, who, after 20 years, returns to find her ex-husband, Ulysses, living in the squalor of a trailer, dying from lung cancer and unable to remember the night she left with their 5-year-old son.
The off-Broadway show, by young playwright Sharr White, premiered in 2013 and starred husband and wife Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. It’s an intimate, well-balanced dramedy, Sneary said. Lucky, then, that the actors and director have such a long-standing relationship. In fact, Fugate was the one who introduced Sneary to the play.
“It’s a lot of things that I usually don’t get to play around with,” Fugate said. “What’s so great about it is there’s so much for each of us that we want to say and want to hear but simultaneously don’t want to hear, and getting to play that opposite is fun. Particularly with Vanessa, who I’ve worked with for years, onstage, there’s so much that’s said in a look that we, without words, can express to each other.”
Sneary is also an actor, and having an “actor’s director” allows for an even deeper trust.
“He steps into the part to understand how it would feel for him so he can communicate with us,” Severo said. “But it’s exactly the way that I can look at it; it still makes sense to me.”
“It’s such a gift to work with a director who’s an actor because they’re helping you do the work instead of just looking at the big picture,” Fugate added.
That’s not to say the two actors haven’t done substantial work of their own for this show. As with any performance, Severo and Fugate have drawn on their own life experiences.
“The show is about the wreckage of the past,” Fugate said. “We all have moments we regret, moments we long to see more clearly in the light of 20 years later than we saw them when they happened. And this play lets these two characters do that, in a way, sort of reconcile what happened with who they’ve become.”
“To find that hurt and answer those questions, it’s been a little trip down memory lane,” added Severo, who, like her character, has had a relationship end badly. “It’s been great to resonate with this character. It’s given me, actually, some kind of closure and acceptance on this relationship that I hadn’t thought about in a long time.”
Despite its premise, “Annapurna” isn’t a complete downer. Well-placed comedy helps leaven the heavy atmosphere, and it becomes clear there’s more love left between the two characters than either would have thought.
The title of the play comes from the Nepali mountain, which Ulysses has written an epic poem about. Like the mountain, he writes, Emma is “so beautiful that you … ruin … the expedition. Or rather the expedition ruins itself upon you.”
Despite the show’s mountainous title, the Living Room is the perfect place to make this show’s Kansas City debut, Sneary said, because it’s so small and intimate.
“It’s a raw, natural piece of theater that I think (audiences) will leave thinking they’ve just spied on someone’s camper trailer for 75 minutes and witnessed two interesting characters relearning who the other is,” Sneary said.
Also this week
The Quality Hill Playhouse presents “Barry, Bette and Broadway,” a cabaret revue of hit pop and Broadway songs of the 1960s and 1970s, including songs from Barry Manilow and Bette Midler. The show runs Sept. 30 through Oct. 30 at 303 W. 10th St. See qualityhillplayhouse.com.
Kate Miller: 816-234-4077, @_Kate_Miller_
“Annapurna” runs Sept. 30 through Oct. 23 at the Living Room Theatre, 1818 McGee St. Mature audiences advised. See thelivingroomkc.com or call 816-533-5857.