Play review; 'Retreat from Moscow'

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 4, 2012

By Katie Scarvey

As I was attended the opening of “The Retreat from Moscow,” I thought about that famous Tolstoy line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I wonder if you could replace “family” with “marriage”?
Produced by the St. Thomas Players and directed by Justin Dionne, “The Retreat from Moscow,” is about a 33-year marriage that has imploded.
The play deftly explores what happens when one partner has emotionally checked out of a marriage while the other partner fights tooth and nail to hang on to it.
Playing Alice is the brilliant Claudia Galup, who manages to come across as both charming and infuriating. In the first act, you’ll cringe as Alice verbally bludgeons Edward, turning the simplest conversational gambit into a skirmish. Edward can’t even ask his wife how her day was without being attacked: “I wish you wouldn’t talk to me like that.”
Kurt Corriher is superb as the beleaguered Edward, who wants a simpler, “sunnier” existence than the one he has with Alice. Solid tea-drinking Englishman that he is, he’s tried to keep calm and carry on even as Alice has turned into a raging harpy.
It becomes clear that Alice’s aggression toward Edward comes from a deep well of unhappiness. Alice feels ignored and invisible and senses her husband’s emotional retreat. She wants a reaction. She wants Edward to express an authentic emotion.
Edward tries to protect himself from her as much as possible, which of course makes things worse. He longs to be able to do his beloved puzzles in peace — crosswords instead of cross words.
Edward finally musters up the courage to leave Alice — for a woman named Angela, who has made him realize how lost he’s been to himself:
“Me is who I am when I’m with Angela,” he says. Still, he can remember a time when Alice dazzled him with her poetry and her very presence, “like a brilliant light.”
Much of the play is concerned with Edward’s feelings of survivor guilt. A history teacher, Edward is reading “The Retreat from Moscow,” which deals with Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion. It causes him to reflect on survival, and how one person’s survival sometimes means that another, weaker person must perish.
The play also explores Alice’s anguish over losing her marriage. She is by turns desperate, manipulative, wallowing, furious, suicidal. It is heartbreaking and excruciating to see her debase herself before Edward, with no hope of winning him back: “I’ll be a good girl,” she begs. Galup nails this and every scene she’s in.
She is “a left woman,” she tells adult son Jamie, played by Jacob Asher, musing on how it would have been so much easier if Edward had died rather than divorced her.
In a whimsical flourish, she buys a dog and calls him Edward, teaching him to “stay,” but later commanding him to play dead by saying, “die, Eddie, die!”
Which points to something important about the play. While there are moments that capture profound pain, there is plenty of humor as well.
As the son caught in an impossible situation, Jamie has his own issues to deal with. His unhappiness in love is hinted at, and his interest in his mother’s survival goes beyond simple concern for her welfare. How Alice rebounds — or doesn’t — could determine whether he will attempt to “last it out.”
Jamie’s most trenchant observation is when he tells his father that if he blames him for anything, it’s for being dishonest: “You went on pretending and pretending and one day you left.”
I can only imagine the satisfaction Justin Dionne must have had in directing such a talented trio of actors. Corriher and Galup are masterful. And Asher captures well the particular hell of a son trying to remain neutral with both sides vying for his allegiance.
My only quibble with this excellent play is the ending as written by Nicholson. Galup’s final words were — for me — spot-on perfect. I so wanted them to be ringing in my ears on the way out of the theater. But the spotlight then moved to Jamie, who gave a speech that smacked of writerly self-indulgence. While Nicholson might identify most with Jamie, it’s really not about him, after all.
“The Retreat from Moscow” continues with performances at 7:30 tonight and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (That matinee performance offers buy-one-get-one free tickets.) Regular tickets are $15.
Performances continue at Aug. 9-11 at 7:30 p.m.
On Friday, Aug. 10 there will be a talk-back with the actors and director immediately following the performance.
Call 704-647-0999 or email faithart@bellsouth. net for more information.