‘Retreat From Moscow’ By Town Players Worth Seeing
By Julie Stern
In 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée of 500,000 troops was defeated in its attempt to subdue Russia and crush the Czar. They were forced into retreat, a long, disastrous march back to France in which some 400,000 men and officers died of their wounds, of starvation, of sickness, and the bitter cold of a Russian winter.
This is the central metaphor of The Retreat From Moscow, William Nicholson’s play about the break-up of a 33-year marriage in which the hopes and dreams that once inspired a newlywed couple are abandoned, as surely as those dying Frenchmen who were pushed into the snow so that the horses pulling the casualty wagons could run faster, enabling the drivers at least to survive.
The play — serving as the season opener for The Town Players of Newtown, and which opened last weekend — opens with Edward, a history teacher at a boys’ school, reading aloud, excerpts from the diaries of French officers, describing the horrors of that journey. Meanwhile his wife, Alice, a sprightly, enthusiastic lover of poetry, tries to engage him in a more personal discussion, becoming aggressively critical as he withdraws into passive small talk.
Playwright Nicholson is probably best known for his work Shadowlands, both the play and the subsequent film about the unlikely romance between the middle-aged Oxford don C.S. Lewis and the much younger American poet Joy Gresham. The author of the children’s Narnia books as well as more serious works concerned with Christian theology, Lewis was a stodgy, reserved bachelor, while Joy was a feisty, uninhibited married woman with a young son. However, the differences in their personal outlooks and sensibilities made their relationship that much richer, only to have it shattered by her early illness and death.
In The Retreat From Moscow, Nicholson again explores the theme of a union of opposites, but based on his own family history, it is divorce, rather than death, that leaves one party stranded and bereft. Also, as in his own experience, it is the couple’s adult son who is caught in the middle, trying to assuage his mother’s grief, while being loyal to both his parents.
Edward comes across as a typical middle-aged suburbanite Englishman — respectable, responsible and rather boring, whose life revolves around his work and the comforts of his armchair and the crossword puzzle, with perhaps a cup of tea.
Alice is an emotional firebrand — intense, outspoken, irrepressibly high spirited, looking for passion in life that matches the poetry she is organizing into an anthology. She cannot bear Edward’s superficial conversation, and goads him continually, demanding he tell her what he really feels.
She gets what she asked for. Reluctantly he tells her that what he really wants is to leave. He has fallen in love with Angela, the mother of one of his pupils. Having worked up the courage to say this, Edward gradually changes into a happier, more assertive man.
Alice, meanwhile, is devastated, but she puts up a fight. Each time Jamie, their son, comes home from London for the weekend, he is regaled with new accounts of the tactics she uses, in her attempt to fix what had been irreparably broken.
Beautifully acted by Laurel Lettieri, Alice is not a sympathetic character. Fueled by rage and pain, her vitriolic personal attacks on both Edward and occasionally Jamie, are ugly and discomforting. But this is a play about survival, and about survivors’ guilt. Edward first met Alice when he accidentally stepped onto the wrong train during a moment of grief over his father’s death. The immediate empathy and understanding he received from this perfect stranger — who recited a poem about love and loss — impressed him deeply, and led, eventually, to a marriage, in which she tried to mold him into the kind of man she wanted.
Rob Pawlikowski perfectly handles the role of Edward, who realizes that he has been on the wrong train for most of his life.
Ward Whipple fills the role of Jamie, who does his best to be supportive of both parents, although it is clear that he too will be a casualty of this broken marriage.
In our culture where so many marriages fail, most of us are all too familiar with break-ups where someone is left behind in pain, and where children are caught in the crossfire of anger and hurt. Under the expert guidance of director Ruth Anne Baumgartner, The Town Players have mounted a serious, intelligent play that combines intellectual substance with intense psychological depth.
There is humor, too, although it is tinged with bitterness. Nicholson’s dialogue is crisp and snappy, and Alice’s vengeful ploys make us laugh in spite of ourselves, because the man knows how to write.
This is definitely a play worth going to see, one that shows just how good The Town Players can be when they are at their best.
(Performances continue weekends until September 29, with Friday and Saturday evening shows and Sunday matinees.
See the Enjoy Calendar, in print and online, for additional information.)