Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Retreat from Moscow"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by William Nicholson
directed by James Barton

Alice … Anne Damon
Edward … Ron Mitchell
Jamie … Richard Schieferdecker

William Nicholson’s THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW deals, with equal parts humor and loss, with the breakup of a long-term relationship: Edward and Alice, an English couple, have been married for thirty-three years and have a grown son Jamie who lives elsewhere. As Mr. Ibsen’s Peer Gynt strips away an onion’s layers only to find nothing at its center, Mr. Nicholson peels backs MOSCOW’s teacup chatter to expose the emptiness at the core of this marriage. Each partner reacts differently to their predicament: Alice constantly provokes Edward in attempts at communication; Edward asks for nothing but to be left alone with his books and his crossword puzzles. On the eve of their anniversary, Edward announces he has fallen in love with another woman and will be moving out; Jamie rolls with the punches --- his upbringing has left him detached but dutiful --- whereas Alice chooses to fight for her marriage but Edward takes his cue from Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow where the strong abandoned the weak in order to survive, themselves; it is to Mr. Nicholson’s credit that he remains close to both characters: one limping away in self-defense, the other left to an unexpected fate. Act One is gripping with its battles worthy of Strindberg through to Edward’s moving monologue where he equates his life with Alice to his having gotten on the wrong train, so long ago. Act Two is the slow licking of wounds, all around, seasoned with the threat of Alice possibly committing suicide, and the evening concludes with husband and wife resigned to going their separate ways; Jamie, however, will always be their emotionally stunted child.

The Vokes Players being given the rights to premiere Mr. Nicholson’s play in New England is evidence in itself of the company’s growing excellence though James Barton’s stop-start direction made THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW come at you in chunks rather than in a rising-falling arc, and it was further hampered by Richard Schieferdecker’s slow-moving, slow-emoting Jamie whose final monologue, meant to be a lyrical cry from the heart, was an earthbound as all that preceded it, but Ron Mitchell and Anne Damon made an endlessly fascinating Edward and Alice. I did not see the original Broadway production but am told that its Edward’s long-term reticence provoked its Alice into a growing, understandable neuroticism. Here, Ms. Damon, a scene-stealing comedienne, made a hearty dominatrix, marching round and round in circles, demanding that the world do as she says, while Mr. Mitchell’s harrowed Edward slowly but steadily drifted out of her life in a barely perceptible straight line. Ms. Damon’s performance had its share of theatre from theatre’s sake, earning her lusty laughter, but Ms. Damon also showed traces of Alice’s former vibrancy that drew Mr. Mitchell’s Edward to her in the first place; their mutual portrait was of a timid, reserved man reaching out to a loving woman full of poetry and charm but not knowing how to reciprocate, himself. When Mr. Mitchell delivered his train monologue, his Edward was subtly rejuvenated: a straighter posture, a bit more color in his personality, an ability to look his audience in the eye (ironically, Edward’s new lease on life revolves around a woman who lets him read and do his crossword puzzles in peace).

At first Stephen McGonagle’s bombed-out setting led me to believe that THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW took place during the Blitz but was, instead, an obvious bit of symbolism (I was amused to see the diminutive Ms. Damon play most of her scenes on the set’s higher level) and D Schweppe’s harsh, washed-out lighting threw shadows into the actors’ faces whenever they stepped downstage. The audience, on the night I attended, was largely composed of middle-aged and senior women who often whispered and muttered, throughout: apparently Mr. Nicholson’s uncompromising look at a marriage on the rocks hit home, often.

"The Retreat from Moscow" (5-21 May)
Route 20, WAYLAND, MA
1 (508) 358-4034

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide