note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
This review first appeared in The Wayland (MA) Town Crier
The title of William Nicholson's take on his parents' divorce, "The Retreat From Moscow," now playing at Vokes, relates to a Napoleonic soldier's diary.
Edward (Ron Mitchell) has been reading the diary, and he tells Alice (Anne Damon), his wife of 30-plus years, that Napoleon abandoned Moscow in 1812 with 450,000 troops. By the time he reached France 430,000 were dead or missing. The remaining 20,000 wouldn't have survived the winter either, he says, if they had tried to save the weak.
Edward is thinking this relates to his life. His marriage to Alice, happier in son Jamie's (Richard Schieferdecker) early years, is not working. The passive Edward incongruously identifies with Napoleon's survivors cutting loose the weak. Although the energetic and domineering Alice seems like the strong one here, he soon makes her the walking wounded.
Damon's portrayal is powerful. Alice, a live wire with a stranglehold on the truth, is both funny and tragic. In the opening scene she tells Jamie that she took her computer printer for service and lambasted the clerk for ignoring her: "Aren't you supposed to serve me? I'm a customer." She goes on to recount throwing the printer on the floor and telling the clerk she's certain everyone in his life hates him.
She's a formidable woman. Despite her deep love for Edward, she criticizes him relentlessly. He's convinced he can't do anything right and retreats inward.
Jamie tries to see both points of view. He understands why Alice wants Edward to look at her, to say he loves her, to "tell me something real," instead of offering to make tea or withdrawing into a crossword puzzle. But Jamie also understands why Edward feels browbeaten and forced to be someone he isn't.
Although Edward has fallen for a younger woman, what Jamie blames his father for most is the years of not speaking up, of letting resentment build until it is too late for Alice to fix anything. Edward insists that he never meant to be cruel. "I was a sleeper in my own marriage. ... I got on the wrong train."
The son patiently comforts both. This role reversal may undercut the empathy playgoers feel for Alice and Edward. Two more selfish parents would be hard to find.
The way they dump all their angst on Jamie, force him to be a go-between -- and leave him no life of his own -- is a crime. Probably realistic, but a crime. Alice even burdens Jamie with the possibility that she will commit suicide, and he feels he should say he understands. He adds, however, that it would mean a lot to him if his mother decided to live and make the battle of life seem worth a fight. Alice is willing to consider staying alive for her son. Holy smoke.
Alice shows some potential to grow from pain. But Edward, apparently happy with a new and accepting woman, seems destined to shuffle wherever she points, just as he did with Alice.
It is often said that the sign of a good play is whether playgoers are talking about it at intermission, and "The Retreat From Moscow" seemed to strike a chord at Vokes. At intermission, women in the audience expressed empathy for Alice's wanting a husband to look at her and talk to her about something "real." Men related to the regular chap who's scolded for not talking about feelings.
Curiously, Edward's frustration with Alice's ways doesn't include her frequent poetry recitations. The audience squirms when the poems bring dramatic action grinding to a halt, but Edward and Jamie seem to enjoy the recitations and Alice's praise for guessing her poets' names. Through such moments, the audience comes to understand that once upon a time, Edward, Alice and Jamie were a compatible family and that once-upon-a-time will have to be enough.
Under James Barton's direction, the play features long silences rich with meaning. Stephen McGonagle's set, with plaster peeled back to show the structure's bare bones, appropriately conveys brokenness. D Schweppe works his usual magic with lighting. Mary Ellen Pastor designed the costumes, and Robert Zawistowski the sound effects. Grant Wood was the producer.
"The Retreat From Moscow" runs through May 21. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.