A marriage slipping into history

theater review

Standing O stages family drama, 'Retreat from Moscow'

November 20, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

As the third and final production of its opening season, Standing O is introducing its Chesapeake Academy black box theater audience to British playwright William Nicholson's The Retreat from Moscow. With this play, Standing O founder and artistic director Ron Giddings continues the mission of Anne Arundel County's newest theater company to offer little-known recent theater gems to local audiences.

Nominated for three Tony Awards in 2004, The Retreat from Moscow tells the story of an English couple, Edward and Alice, who are dealing with a dying marriage of three decades.

Here a stoical passive husband decides to leave his self-righteous nagging wife on a weekend when their adult son Jamie is visiting. Edward announces to Jamie that he is leaving Alice for another woman, thus unfairly forcing his son into the role of intermediary.

Giddings directs this production and reinforces his ability to recruit some of the best actors in the area to choose an ideal cast. Each actor is dedicated to maintaining Standing O's professional reputation. Giddings also serves as set designer, creating a wall embellished with fragments of poems quoted throughout the play.

Splendid acting performances are given by Jim Reiter, who is known to audiences at 2nd Star and Colonial Players where he excelled in multiple roles in last season's Hauptmann; Mary Watko, who has given many memorable performances as an actress (Lil in last season's Kindertransport) and as a director (Enchanted April) at Colonial Players and at Bowie Community Theatre; and Ben Carr, who most recently defined the role of journalist Mike Conner in Colonial's season opener, The Philadelphia Story.

Protagonists Alice and Edward have their separate passions - she for poetry and he for history - that evoke their intense feelings. Retreat from Moscow might be described as a series of monologues interspersed with dialogue exchanges between characters who are recognizable in ourselves. Edward is passive and reluctant to express his feelings, and Alice, needing Edward's assurance that he cares about her, attempts to goad him into revealing his feelings. Alice quoting stanzas of memorized poetry - a talent that once dazzled Edward - may represent her only language for reaching him now.

A history teacher, Edward is fascinated by a book about the retreat of Napoleon's troops from Moscow in 1812, reading passages aloud, describing soldiers dying in the snow. This book that furnishes the play's title may well be a metaphor for the struggle that accompanies the dying gasps of the couple's marriage.

Act 1 leads up to the marriage breakup. Reiter initially creates an Edward who is remote and reticent, painfully incapable of giving Alice the "real marriage" she demands, slowly distancing himself until he announces that he wants to leave. Here he creates a liberating moment with the exhilaration of his newfound and overdue freedom as he breaks free of his feelings of inadequacy. In later scenes, Reiter's Edward gradually reveals an ordinary man with ability to feel admiration and affection for new partner Isabel and for Alice.

Watko, in a tour de force performance as Alice, goes from an aggressive confrontational nag, determined to impose her religiosity on her husband, and belittling him for his inadequacy, to a fearful desperate woman clinging to her 33-year marriage. Watko inhabits Alice, annoying us when she needles both her husband and son about their insufficient religious convictions and aching at her raw anguish at being abandoned. Watko's Alice compels us to rejoice for her when she volunteers counseling AIDS victims, humorously revealing a generous, unsuspected dimension. She can be mercurial, as she exasperates the audience while ordering her recently acquired dog named "Edward" to stay and heel.

Carr's role as Jamie might not be as flashy, but it is as demanding as he is called upon to remain the stoical only child of parents he continues to love as he absorbs their pain. Carr's Jamie reflects the troubling characteristics of both parents, and he becomes so real to us that one is caught up wondering along with his probing mother about his private life.

Nicholson's play is filled with familiar life situations that make us think, his characters as created by this gifted acting trio continue to intrigue us long after we leave the theater.

The Retreat from Moscow continues tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. at Chesapeake Academy's black box theater in Arnold. For tickets, call 410-647-8412.

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