Clattering around his bleak, dirty beige mobile home in Colorado, with a jagged mountain peak outside the window, Ulysses is trying to die quietly, until his ex-wife Emma appears. He cocks a suspicious eyebrow, looks her over, and spits out: “After twenty years, you show up with seventeen thousand dollars, bruises, and a fruit bowl,” and they’re off to the races, recalling their brief but electric married life. In the Purple Rose production, the dialog of Annapurna has a rhythm you can practically tap dance to.

It’s gradually revealed that Ulysses is a poet of some note and Emma his editor who abandoned him for a safer, more conventional life. But Annapurna is not about the problems of intellectuals–it’s an accessible, universal story of how painful it is to be young and on fire, with no money and a child. “So true to life. It can really be like that–the drinking, the screaming,” whispered someone behind me to a friend, and her friend nodded. Like many people who come to Sunday matinees, they were seniors, and they sounded wistful.

The playwright, Sharr White, makes poetry out of everyday language. Richard McWilliams is simply fabulous as Ulysses: by turns gentle, rancorous, sharp, defeated, defiant. Michelle Mountain does her best–a brassy, warm, high-energy presence, she can do earth mother, vamp, or pretty much any woman over in the Marilyn Monroe corner–but her skill set doesn’t go in this opposite direction. It takes a lot of intellectual ballast to make Emma into Ulysses’ equal, and Mountain doesn’t have it. She’s warm and solid, but as the play progresses, she begins to seem unfathomably dim when it comes to choosing husbands.

There’s a treat here for James Joyce fans, I think, though with no reference to Joyce in the program, much less in the play itself, it’s struggling a little too hard to escape from what seems like an ordinary piece of storytelling theatre. Two odd words stick out in White’s otherwise normal vocabulary: “Ulysses,” not a popular baby name even these days, and “Annapurna,” a mountain in India neither character seems to have visited. These are the only two potential clues that the play sits atop a pool of Joyce allusions, but as the play draws to a close, a little bit of a familiar literary landscape shows itself. It seems that Annapurna is to Ulysses (this play’s Ulysses, I mean) what the River Liffey is to Finnegan’s Wake–an unconquerable, shape-shifting life force and natural phenomenon that is also a woman. In Finnegan’s Wake Joyce also called the Liffey “Anna Livia Plurabelle.” Ulysses’ Annapurna is likewise a woman, and she’s named Emma.

If this seems far-fetched, ask yourself why the play isn’t called Pike’s Peak, and the male character Mike or Joe. Finnegan’s Wake is too dense a forest to make sense of here, and that’s if you buy the argument that it makes sense at all, but this is just to note that Joyce lovers should come prepared, and I’d love to hear what a real Joyce scholar could glean from it all.