Backstage with the Playwrights
By Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
The Retreat from Moscow
(Historical Excerpt) (Historical Painting)
Starring: Eileen Atkins, John Lithgow, Ben Chaplin
Playwright: William Nicholson
Director: Daniel Sullivan
222 West 45th Street
A Shubert Organization Theatre
Stuart Thompson Productions
Aurora Productions, Inc.
Producers: Susan Quint Gallin, Stuart Thompson, Ron Kastner, True Love Productions, Mary Lu Roffe, and Jam Theatricals
Marketing: The Marketing Group
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Composer/Sound Design: John Gromada
Production Stage Manager: Roy Harris
Stage Manager: Denise Yaney
Production Management: Gene O'Donovan
Casting: Daniel Swee
General Manager: James Triner
Vocal Consultant: Elizabeth Smith
October 29, 2003
Retreat from Moscow is a metaphorical play about survival of the fittest and destruction of the most vulnerable, but in the countryside near London. John Lithgow as Edward, a college history teacher, is retreating from a 33 year marriage that leaves him frozen and wasting, after he finds new hope and life from the mother of one of his students. But, Eileen Atkins as Alice, a poet and creator of poetry anthologies, is unaware of the retreat. She remains mired in frozen death of the spirit, longing for love and warmth, and waiting for a renewal in the form of an anniversary dinner. Ben Chaplin as Jamie, the son who becomes torn by his parents' needs and coping abilities, becomes obsessed with guilt for loyalty to his father and fear for his mother's survival. Napoleon's retreat from Moscow (See historical link above) was a physical and mental challenge for the leader and army, as his soldiers lay dying in the icy outlying forests, often wishing for death to end the everlasting pain.
For those readers familiar with the ravages of lost relationships and brutal divorces, there is much in this work to which one can relate. For those on the luckier side of life's experiences, there are lessons here about what to avoid. Edward spoke of a wrong turn in early decisions about Alice, who actually formed a bond when he needed one, just like the one now formed by the mysterious Angela. Alice could not accept the concept of a lost life, not to mention a lost marriage and the existence of another woman. She eventually needed reassurance that at least there was once marital love and closeness, the latter apparently far more urgently needed now than the former, but closeness was cataclysmically gone. These were three painful, parallel lives.
Eileen Atkins, as the scorned woman/wife, the abandoned and anxious middle-aged loner, is perfectly cast, as her face twists and tightens at the moment of reality, when her husband opens the symbolic door to Hell and locks her inside. She behaves unlike a modern woman, who might sell the house and move to the City (London), making there a new life for herself, with her son and new friends. She behaves in a Chekovian manner - that is, a victim of circumstances, a product of the environment, one who succumbs to the inevitable, and, in an even worse fate than that of the early Russian characters, she loses hope and clings to the Gospel for strength (her Bible always close).
John Lithgow as Edward is able to achieve the presence of inner strength and personal change, as we see him morph from a lifeless posture, as he caresses his favorite crossword puzzles, as his wife's skin turns to ice. We see his humanity in conversations with Jamie, who, unfortunately, is left to absorb his mother's angst and aggravated behavior, including suicidal innuendos and bittersweet remorse. The real life onstage seems to be in the visual and emotional space that distances the characters, rather than in the connections of words and recriminations. Much like a Giacometti sculpture, space takes on a life of its own.
The stage set of bare twigs and twines, by John Lee Beatty, was effective and lovely, especially in the brilliant and changing lighting effects of Brian MacDevitt. Again, in another Chekovian pattern, the presence of light, near play's end, as the dark twines turn to white branches, seems to evoke harsh truth and cold reality. Ms. Atkins' loose and awkward clothing seems representational of her unhinged persona (Verbal flashbacks relate to her anxiety attacks, which are quite colorful). The poetry, history, and personal soliloquies, recited intermittently by each of the three characters, were well chosen and poignant.
In fact, the most poignant passages seemed to emanate from Jamie, as he begged his mother for hope and courage, for reassurance that he would survive the burdens of life, if only she can show him the way. He wrested his emotional torment at the site of his mother's instability and returned it squarely, forcing her to draw sensual inspiration and survival instinct from this moment, from this man. This is a play worth seeing, as William Nicholson and this sensational trio of actors draw the audience into a frozen forest of intertwining lives and tangible space.
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Photo courtesy of Barlow * Hartman Public Relations