The Retreat from Moscow
Like Napoleon in the Russian capitol in 1812, Alice seems to have won a victory over her husband, Edward, as they discuss the fate of the French army, in the opening scene of the regional premiere of William Nicholson's The Retreat from Moscow.
But like the emperor, her victory is pyrrhic, and in short order her psychological and emotional resources are drained as she weathers the dissolution of her contemporary English marriage of 33 years.
This is, however, no ordinary chronicle of divorce. Nicholson, who won numerous honors for his television, theatre, and film versions of Shadowlands, possesses exquisite poetic sensibilities, and has imbued the script with, alternately, lyrical and sharp dialogue, as well as a succession of erudite and timely literary renderings, and a well-crafted dramatic arc.
A paean to his parents' marriage, Nicholson presents the play as both a story and as narratives told by the three participants, Alice, Edward, and their son, Jamie.
Alice, an editor, writes poetry on the side, and is in the midst of a long-standing project of anthologizing of her works. Her passion, which is so evident in her writing, is stymied however in her relationship with Edward, who is quiet and deferential to her choices. He teaches history, and enjoys the solitude of reading and working on crossword puzzles.
Their conflicts are perfectly executed studies in the inevitability of character. Martha Harmon Pardee, as Alice, is lively and engaging, equally at home telling a funny story about her computer printer—which cuts off the first two words of every line of her poetry, thus rendering it "very modern, but not very good"—as she is railing at Edward and slapping him for not being present.
Jim Hunt subtly moves Edward from his crimped marital reticence to a stronger, clearer man, happy in a more compatible relationship, now able to verbalize his feelings.
Due to both her intractable, domineering nature and her dogmatic Catholicism, Alice's transformation requires more time and is fraught with tougher challenges. Nicholson expertly builds the tension surrounding Alice's pending choice, driving toward a tense scene involving the divorced couple, accompanied by a poem and a knife.
Whatever understanding was reached there, however, cannot undo the grief Alice and Edward have put Jamie through, both having tried to win him over to their respective sides. Ed Cord, as Jamie, clearly communicates the internalization this strife in his thoughtful silences and measured tones. Later, Cord shows us that Jamie has transmogrified these bitter experiences into a form of tenacity and fortitude, holding on to the good times of his childhood and his small adult pleasures.
As the metaphor in the title of the play suggests, each member of this family has been decimated, just as Napoleon's army: Edward in the marriage, Alice by divorce, and their son, Jamie, as a product of this frozen battleground. And though they all, in their narratives, have their say, and each in some measure is transformed, it is Jamie that has the last word, "As you suffer, so I shall suffer. As you endure, so I shall endure. Forgive me for worshipping you." Whether this realization serves as an excuse to remain defined by his past, or as a springboard to a new life, is left open to our speculation.
In this finely-tuned production, director Chip Walton shows that, when not directing social and political blockbusters for his Curious Theatre Company, he retains his deft touch at the intricacies of human drama, here providing an unobstructed experience of the playwright's detailed vision.
The Aurora Fox Arts Center production of The Retreat from Moscow runs through February 20th. 303-739-1970.