William Nicholson's The Retreat from Moscow, which currently is being given a crisp, clear and sympathetic hearing at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is both an anachronism and an anomaly.
An anachronism, because this family play is a tale out of time. Although the program tells us that the action occurs in "present-day England," it might as well be set in a tomb. Edward and Alice, who have been married for 33 years, are so removed from present-day life and reality that they appear to have emerged from some recently dug-up time capsule, or perhaps even a grave.
Their very remoteness also explains why the play is an anomaly. This sober dissection of a failing marriage is a drama from another era. Its civility is reminiscent of early Terence Rattigan; its quietude reminds one of early Edward Albee. Now that Broadway has abandoned serious drama almost entirely, one wonders how this modest work ever got produced last season. And how did such a contemplative story manage to eke out even a five-month run sandwiched between the glitz of Mamma Mia! and the clamor of Hairspray?
The title is a metaphor. Edward, a history professor, is fascinated by firsthand accounts of Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812, when one's very survival depended on showing no mercy to one's fellow man. Here the action kicks in when Edward begins his own retreat.
A viewer might well grow impatient with this play, because it breaks so many rules. Rule Number One: A viewer should be able to relate to at least one of the protagonists. But Alice is a termagant and Edward is a humorless defeatist who has become paralyzed by his misbegotten marriage. Rule Number Two: If anything slows down the forward movement of drama, it is poetry. Nevertheless, Alice recites verse by the stanza, and forces her husband and son to quote it too. Rule Number Three: Drama is confrontation. Most of us will crawl a mile out of our way to avoid a confrontation, so when we attend the theater we crave the vicarious satisfaction of seeing George and Martha claw at each other. But there is almost no confrontation here, because like us, Edward is a coward who prefers to slink away rather than fight. Rule Number Four: Scripts should build to a climax. This script builds to an anticlimax.
Yet despite all these broken rules, the play is absorbing from beginning to end. Obviously, Nicholson is aware of Long Day's Journey into Night, The Dance of Death and all those other overwrought dramas that scrutinize crumbling marriages. He may even know that he doesn't have all that much new to add to the theme, but he wants to speak of these things for himself, which is a right that all artists must claim.
The Rep production, directed by Steven Woolf, serves the play admirably. The spare scenic design by Marie Ann Chiment -- here a chair, there a table -- seems to suggest that all the accumulated trappings of this marriage have been rendered irrelevant. The subtle lighting design by Phil Monat is especially impressive. No matter where these three characters move onstage, their profiles remain sharply etched, almost as if we're looking at old family photos.
As Alice, the shrew-turned-victim, Darrie Lawrence has the evening's showiest role. Bad news will transform her face into a gargoyle; a sudden shock will cause her to hyperventilate. Lawrence pushes all the right buttons without revealing any of the tricks. Anderson Matthews is fine as Edward, though it should be noted that he has played essentially this same role in numerous other Rep productions, so there's a certain old-slipper familiarity to his performance.
Erik Steele, on the other hand, provides a refreshing contrast to his most recent Rep appearance. Last season Steele was a delightfully flamboyant Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. Here he is simply earnest. As the son who begins the evening as the servant of two masters and by play's end becomes its most dominant character, Steele's portrayal is as simple and pure as a glass of clear water. While seeming to do almost nothing except be there, Steele transforms a story about husbands and wives into a story about parents and children.
Especially now that so few nonmusical plays tour, it's a no-brainer for regional theaters to produce the flavor of the month, be it Proof or Wit or Frozen. But to take a chance on a near-miss, a throwback to the past, a play that did not benefit from the accolades of commercial success, shows mettle. The Rep is to be commended for mounting such a thoughtful production.