The Retreat from Moscow
William Nicholson's The Retreat From Moscow, which has opened a five-week run at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, lacks the sweetness of his memorable and multiple-award-winning Shadowlands, but it shares with that play a meticulous attention to the nuances of human relationships. It is this clarity of insight that lifts a small and potentially humdrum story into the rarified atmosphere of genuine drama.
This account of the end of a thirty-three-year marriage is not violent, nor is it unbearably painful; it is often gripping and more often sad, but most often simply convincingly true. Edward, a history teacher obsessed with the unbearable catastrophe of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, is a gray sort of man, so uncomfortable with intimacy that even in despair he declaims rather than speaks. He is an expert at avoiding confrontation, and it is his refusal to be present in their marriage that fuels much of the resentment which drives his wife Alice to attack, sometimes quite savagely. From the first few speeches it is clear that the two have fallen into or deliberately fashioned a passive-aggressive relationship that has been building toward inevitable disaster for years.
Alice, whose career as an editor of poetry anthologies is a perfect outlet for her passion for the art form, is an unreconstructed romantic, blinded to the real possibilities of her marriage by her vision of the way it ought to be. Her inability to face what is happening until the breakup is final, and even after, energizes the play's most telling scenes, in which her romantic illusions are forcefully, if not brutally, stripped away. This is not the sort of story that hangs on suspense, but there is a kind of grace in the play's final scenes that provides a solid sense of closure.
Their son Jamie, caught in the middle and exploited by both parents as a go-between and witness to the justice of their respective arguments, is more interesting as a dramatic convention than as a character; it is telling that by the play's end, though he has been on stage as much as and perhaps more than either Ed or Alice, we know almost nothing about him. But his presence allows playwright Nicholson to avoid awkward monologues and to develop the characters of his parents dramatically rather than through exposition.
I suspect, without having read the script, that The Retreat From Moscow can be interpreted so as to support the case of either spouse, or, indeed, so as to make both characters look rather more naïve and foolish than simply unhappy. Fortunately, director Steven Woolf encourages his cast to sustain the dignity of their characters, and the result is that these benighted people become not only sympathetic but involving. There is enough richness in Nicholson's observation of human nature to justify a steady and careful focus on his words as well as on actions, and Anderson Mathews, as Ed, and Darrie Lawrence, as Alice, are wonderful craftsmen both vocally and physically. Erik Steele gives a strong performance as the baffled Jamie.
The staging, by Marie Anne Chiment, is minimal, with Phil Monat's lighting defining various locations as well as the play's moods. Miss Chiment's costumes are, with one dramatically effective exception, as understated as the set.
I was fortunate enough to see the London production of Shadowlands with Sir Nigel Hawthorne as C. S. Lewis, and I conceived then a great admiration for Mr. Nicholson's work. If The Retreat From Moscow is not as strikingly brilliant as Shadowlands, it is nevertheless, in its expert analysis of and rich sympathy for the human condition, a play to be savored, and the Repertory Theater of St. Louis has given it a worthy production.
The production will run through March 11; tickets can be purchased by telephone at 314-968-4925 or on line at www.repstl.org.