- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006

It’s sad when any relationship breaks up, but the end of a 33-year marriage seems especially painful. How do you get over a three-decade habit of being together — the sameness, the safety?

A marriage that should have lasted forever but came up short is the basis for William Nicholson’s keenly felt drama “The Retreat From Moscow,” dexterously acted and directed by James Edmondson at Round House Theatre. The play was drawn from the ugly particulars of Mr. Nicholson’s parents’ divorce after a lengthy marriage as well as from recollections of an adult son forced to act as a go-between.

Like many of Mr. Nicholson’s works—”Shadowlands,” about late-blooming love between writer C.S. Lewis and an American divorcee, is perhaps his best known play — “The Retreat From Moscow” is about the hiding places of the human heart and also the role of religion in everyday life.

Bill Clarke’s set design says it all — a living room and kitchen with all the trappings of coziness but none of the warmth. Two slipcovered easy chairs flank each side of the stage, and the emotional distance between them is so vast you could drive a Hummer through it.

From the twin floral outposts, a married couple begin their daily siege on each other. The title of the play is derived from Napoleon’s ruinous Russian campaign, and Alice (Carol Mayo Jenkins) is waging a futile crusade of sorts, this time on her tepid-souled schoolteacher husband, Edward (Rick Foucheux).

Alice, a poetry anthologist and the more impulsive and passionate of the two, goads Edward into not being so complacent about their marriage and hiding behind his Napoleon books and the crossword puzzle. With every stinging, needling word, Edward folds into himself, and Mr. Foucheux offers an aching emotional portrait of a man patiently resigned to dying by degrees. In contrast, Miss Jenkins is all splintering, immoderate sorrow, using the shaded musicality of her voice to express everything from outrage to gallows humor and bemused martyrdom.

As it turns out, Edward has something up his shabby cardigan sleeve. One weekend, he walks out, leaving Alice dazed and raging and their son Jamie (Tim Getman) trapped in the middle. As the divorce process goes on, both sides refuse to back down from their original positions. Edward has left physically and emotionally and is firmly in the future, trying to grab some happiness in middle age. Alice is locked in the past, refusing even to enter the present, holding on to her love for her husband and demanding that he return. Her love was good enough before, she insists, why is it insufficient now?

Jamie sees both sides and tries to be the dutiful son, but his parents’ divorce brings up his own issues with closeness. Although in his 30s, Jamie still sports that uncomprehending scowl of an adolescent who complains life isn’t fair. Mr. Getman, his handsome features balled up like a baby’s fist, ably conveys the frustration of someone caught in an impossible situation, but the character seems somehow unformed.

As does the play. “The Retreat From Moscow” does not have a point beyond a wary examination of a long-standing marriage. You can only take so many painful scenes before wondering where they lead, other than the workaday notion that though marriage can be dreary, divorce is a thousand times worse. Love is not the only topic that is raised but not adequately treated. The character of Alice is a devoted Catholic and believes in the power of prayer and wishes a spiritual quickening would occur in both her agnostic son and husband. Yet the issue of the richness of life between believers and non-believers is dropped fairly quickly and pretty much vanishes by the second act.

The ending is a bit of a cop-out as well, and you sense that Mr. Nicholson didn’t know where to go with his three very separate characters. He has Jamie stand in the center of the stage and deliver a homily of sorts, pallidly concluding that there is no right side and no wrong side, just two good people who couldn’t stay together.

The play’s tepid shortcomings, however, do not detract from the magnetic melancholy of “The Retreat From Moscow” and the virtuosity of its performances.

***

WHAT: “The Retreat From Moscow,” by William Nicholson

WHERE: Round House Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 30.

TICKETS: $25 to $50

PHONE: 240/644-1100

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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