by Gail M. Burns, July 2005.
The Miniature Theatre of Chester has launched their 2005 season, billed as “A Summer of Uncommon Love Stories”, with a funny, touching, and intellectually stimulating production of William Nicholson’s Tony nominated 2002 play The Retreat from Moscow.
The title of this moving and expertly performed play refers to Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow during the bitterly cold winter of 1812. Of the 422,000 troops who advanced, a mere 10,000 returned alive. Edward (Roger Forbes) is reading about this historical event as the play opens, and references to it, comparing the experience to Edward and Alice’s 33 year marriage and its eventual disintegration, appear throughout the play. At nearly 60, Edward, a school teacher, seems deeply settled into his marriage, career, and a simple home life centered on reading, doing the crosswords, and the mundane tasks of setting up for and clearing up from the endless parade of meals and cups of tea that punctuate the day.
Alice (Jill Tanner), an expert on English poetry and a devout Roman Catholic, wants more. Even she is not entirely clear what she wants or needs, but she is constantly seeking more, especially from her relationship with Edward. During the early scenes of the play you watch and listen helplessly as her desperate search for what is lacking causes deeper and deeper.
As the play opens Alice and Edward’s 32 year old son Jamie (Tom O’Brien) has come down from London for a rare visit to his parents suburban British home. Jamie is not a very clearly drawn character. He has a job and he has occasional ill-fated relationships with women, but we are never told any details of his life. Director James Warick and lighting designer Lara Dubin often place him in shadow listening while Edward or Alice soliloquize about their past and their relationship. Nicholson claims that The Retreat from Moscow is about the disintegration of his parents’ marriage, which would make the shadowy Jamie the playwright’s doppelganger in this story. It is not surprising then that Nicholson sees Edward and Alice, the others, much more clearly than he sees himself in this story.
Jamie’s visit is progressing as usual, until Edward tells him that he has fallen in love with Angela, the mother of one of his students and intends to leave Alice for a new life with her. He follows through on this plan and the rest of the play is devoted to watching these three people cope with this radical change in their family structure.
Alice’s emotional reaction is the strongest and loudest. Much as you want to ring her neck, Alice is written as a fascinating, brilliant, and very funny person. Tanner takes this wonderful, meaty role and makes the very most of it. I found myself truly in suspense as her Alice toyed with the idea of either murder or suicide as ways to cope with the deep pain Edward’s leaving has caused.
Forbes is also excellent as Edward. Nicholson draws a poignant parallel, which Forbes plays beautifully, between the survivor’s guilt experienced by Napoleon’s troops (or really any survivors of an horrific experience) and Edward’s feelings as he escapes from and survives his marriage to Alice. “Before I felt that I was wrong all the time but that I was innocent, and now I feel that I am doing the right thing but I am guilty” is the gist of the line.
O’Brien does a nice job with the difficult role of Jamie. He makes you feel the pain of a child, and no matter how old you are you remain your parents’ child, watching his birth family morph into a new form and his parents reveal themselves as mere mortals after all. His British accent is the weakest of the three, but accents are very tricky and Forbes has the advantage of actually being British.
The Catholic faith, which Alice embraces wholeheartedly, Jamie eschews, and Edward regards with the distant eye of the theologian, is another important character in this play. Nicholson’s Methodist father and Jewish mother both converted to Catholicism when he was seven and he was educated by Benedictines and Dominicans. Of his own decision to leave the church as a young adult Nicholson has written: “Much as I wanted to go on believing, it became clear to me that it’s we humans who make God, in our great need. God, if he existed, would have no need of humanity. But as all my writing demonstrates, the need or the puzzle or the hunger has never left me.” In The Retreat from Moscow Nicholson continues his exploration of issues of faith and divinity.
Alice and Edward recite a great deal of poetry in this play, all of it touchingly apropos to their characters. All the poems quoted are helpfully listed in the program notes, and if I weren’t such a hopeless poetry dunce I would be able to whip out the perfect set of lines which would encapsulate each character and their relationship as Nicholson does over and over again.
Carl Sprague has designed a very antiseptic circle white set which represents a various times Alice and Edward’s marital home, Jamie’s London apartment, and Edward’s new home with the unseen Angela. Dubin uses lighting to differentiate the spaces, and the script carefully informs us where we are in each scene, but I found the use of one set with no change in props or set pieces for three locations so intimately associated with each character and their lives to be unsettling. I wished that each place had a defining prop – a special potted plant that the owner tended or a beloved afghan thrown over the easy chair or a set of books on the shelves.
Arthur Oliver is credited with the very realistic costuming. It is easy to believe that Forbes, Tanner, and O’Brien just wandered on to stage in their own street clothes, although, of course these are the clothes of Edward, Alice, and Jamie. Each outfit is believable and character appropriate.
My husband and I will have been married for 24 years this October, and we have one adult and one teenaged son. My companion for the evening was a mother of four who has been married to her husband for about the same amount of time. As the lights came up at intermission she turned to me and said, “The dialogue is very realistic.” To which I replied, “I think some of it has been spoken in my house on occasion.” “Mine too,” she agreed. That is what makes The Retreat from Moscow so very poignant. Whether you yourself have been in a long-term monogamous relationship, or have observed one from the outside, Nicholson has captured perfectly the joys and challenges of such a lifestyle and you will hear echoes of familiar voices throughout the play.
The Retreat From Moscow runs through July 17 at the Miniature Theatre of Chester. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. While there is nothing inherently inappropriate in this show, it is decidedly a play about and for grown-ups. I would not bring children under 16, they’ll be bored and confused. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005