If you want to put on a first-rate production, you need to start with a strong script. And given how many of these there are to choose from, I've no idea why so many half-baked plays -- ancient, creaking comedies, pretentious contemporary effusions, dated musicals -- get staged around here. (Well, I do understand the comedies and musicals: The rights must be dirt cheap.) Passionate acting and technical dexterity can't rescue a weak text; conversely, a good one makes everyone involved look good. Fortunately, Chip Walton, directing away from his home at Curious Theatre Company for the Aurora Fox, has chosen to mount a very fine play: William Nicholson's The Retreat From Moscow. It's subtle, passionate, assured and full of magnificent bits of quoted poetry.
The play begins as Edward, a history teacher, reads a book on the retreat of Napoleon's troops from Moscow. Later, he describes to his bored wife, Alice, how Napoleon's soldiers starved and suffered in slow motion, how the wounded were forced from the moving carts by others who were themselves barely alive and left to freeze to death in the snow. The retreat serves as a metaphor for Edward's own numbed and defeated inner landscape and also for the disintegration of his marriage to Alice. It may seem a rather grandiose frame for a domestic drama, but the comparison gains resonance and integrity as the play progresses, and Nicholson demonstrates -- using muted colors, irony and understatement -- just how devastating the breakup of a marriage can be.
Alice is an editor working on an anthology of poetry (the section on "lost love," she says, is turning out to be longest in the book). She and Edward have been together for over thirty years. They met when -- tellingly -- he boarded the wrong train and ended up rumbling past his stop. He was still grieving the death of his father; she made an expectedly empathetic comment. But though Edward was once in love with Alice's intellect and vitality, and her ability to quote reams of verse from memory, he's now worn down by her constant demands. She wants him to see her, really see her. She wants a real marriage. He doesn't ask what she means by that, only tells her that he can't provide it.
The Retreat From Moscow
9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora
Presented by the Aurora Fox Arts Center through February 20, 303-739-1970
Alice's wit and high intelligence are deceptive. She's an absolute dunce when it comes to human relationships, a thickheaded bully, insisting that her way of viewing the world is the only correct way, trying to impose her notion of religion and her vision of Christ as savior on her reluctant family. She presses Edward to tell their grown son, Jamie, that Christ is real; she guilt-trips Jamie into sinking to his knees and praying with her. As played by Martha Harmon Pardee, she manifests a thin spiteful edge of madness from the beginning.
We learn early on that Edward is thinking of leaving Alice, and since she's so unpleasant, we root for him to do it. (A gentleman seated two rows behind me was rooting so passionately that at one point he loudly commanded the weeping Alice to "shut up.") But as the play progresses, we realize that Edward's passivity is just as blindly destructive as Alice's bullying. Who, married to a man like this, wouldn't cry out "Talk to me. Answer me. Look at me"? And it's impossible not to pity Alice's suffering when she realizes that her marriage is indeed irretrievably over.
What is unforgivable is the way both parents use and manipulate their son, from Edward's insistence that Jamie be in the house to comfort Alice when he springs the news that he's leaving to Alice's using the young man as a sounding board for her melodramatic threats of suicide. She also shows Jamie the tricks she's teaching the dog she's acquired and named Edward: "Edward, stay. Die, Eddie."
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Jamie seems oddly passive throughout, and you can't quite tell if he's disassociating or exercising typically British reserve. Eventually you realize the price he's paying for his parents' weaknesses. You see that he's trapped in his memories, completely incapable of creating a relationship or a life of his own.
The Retreat From Moscow unfolds in low-key, logical increments. One thing happens and then another. Edward and Alice explain, argue, express self-pity; melodrama threatens to erupt, then peters out; small, ordinary scenes limn the inexorability of the retreat. "We asked for mercy seventeen times today," says Alice, semi-humorously, after she's been to Mass, but there really isn't any mercy in this bleak landscape.
Jim Hunt's Edward seems quietly dignified at first but -- paradoxically -- as the character finds both himself and a modicum of happiness, he's also revealed more and more as a self-absorbed lump. Pardee plays Alice with energy, quickness and bite. Ed Cord seems a little less sure of his footing as Jamie but does communicate the young man's vulnerability.
Oddly, despite the sadness of its theme, The Retreat From Moscow provides an enjoyable evening of theater, both emotionally and intellectually engrossing. And though the tone of Jamie's final encomium to these so-flawed parents is despairing, the love he expresses is so profound that it sounds almost like hope.