Thursday, July 28, 2005
Sometimes it’s hard to identify theater as ‘entertainment.’ Most audiences wouldn’t call watching the performance of some gruesome surgical operation entertaining—yet most of us would be hard-pressed to completely turn away.
Pacific Repertory’s production of William Nicholson’s Retreat from Moscow is like watching the amputation of a limb. Yet in this case that limb is a wife so it goes on living and suffering and expressing this suffering. It’s a horrendously painful procedure that leaves a jagged scar across each of the three tremendously well-acted characters: father, mother and grown son. It’s a cold, brutal retreat from a wounded family life that Nicholson repeatedly compares to Napoleon’s nightmarish withdrawal from Moscow in 1812.
The play opens with the father, played brilliantly by Jack Stauffer, obsessing over the gory details of Napoleon’s retreat. He is mesmerized by the suffering, by the fact that survivors of the disastrous campaign would sacrifice the wounded, leave them behind to freeze and starve on the Russian tundra, in order to save themselves. Of the original 450,000 men, the father excitedly tells his wife, only 22,000 survived.
His wife can’t understand why he should be so interested in such awful history. Little does she know that this meek man, who only seems to want his tea and crosswords, feels as if he has been under siege for the last 33 years. He has identified with doomed soldiers from another century’s war and decided he will not share their fate.
For her part, the wife is simply desperate for the man she loves to engage. In a spellbinding performance, Mary Ann Schaupp-Rousseau verbally beats upon him like a cold, relentless wind, but only because she wants him to respond in some way—any way. She wants him to look at her, to speak honestly with her, to be present.
She is willing to do anything to get inside his city walls. Yet this fiercely intelligent, slightly loony woman is unaware that, like Napoleon, she is already sitting in the ashes of his ruined city and, without having received the Russian capitulation, she is facing a maneuver forcing her out of Moscow. Her meek, distracted husband is not simply ignoring reality, he is ignoring her. He has met someone else and in a day’s time, after 33 years of marriage, he is going to leave.
A good student of military strategy, the husband has decided to time his retreat with a visit from the couple’s 32-year-old son, Jaime, a quietly wounded young man who is clearly one of the conflict’s primary casualties. Portraying the son as a kind of existential Hugh Grant character, Justin Gordon does a magnificent job as the foil between the two parents. Somehow removed and unmovable, Gordon’s quiet pain is perhaps the most unbearable as he is the only true innocent of the three.
No stranger to his mother’s belligerence, Jaime understands his father’s motivations for leaving, but feels betrayed and left behind as well. Without her father, Jaime is all his mother has left. Does Jaime sacrifice his own life to stay with his mother or does he abandon her too?
It’s a god-awful situation and despite the dangers of repeatedly tapping the extended Moscow metaphor, the constant allusions to the French troops’ horrific retreat does it justice. This is a man’s mother after all. When she cries out “What’s going to happen to me when I’m old?” you can just about hear a lonely, arctic wind blow across the stage.
As the father, Stauffer’s performance conveys a wonderfully nuanced transformation. From the timid, submissive house husband who simply wants to be left alone, to a reckless adulterer who passionately confesses his escape plans to his son, Stauffer manages to portray his character as completely sympathetic, if ultimately weak-willed. Beneath the pressures of the disunion, he frays and develops hairline cracks. Like mercury in a paper-thin teacup, he is barely contained. Liberated from his doomed marriage, he flaps wildly in the wind like a frayed flag. It’s scary and unsettling to watch, but like Jaime, we see that the divorce is necessary, that the father’s act was one of self-preservation.
Yet, regardless of his motivations, there is no ignoring the fact that the father’s act is wholly selfish. It’s hard not to blame him for allowing the marriage to bleed out for as long as he does before, as his wife says, he finally gets around to “murdering” it.
Make no mistake, Retreat from Moscow is a grueling tromp through bloody snow in a pair of tattered boots, but it is also undeniably powerful and true.
RETREAT FROM MOSCOW PLAYS THURSDAY THROUGH SATURDAY AT 7:30PM, SUNDAY AT 2PM, AND THEN TUESDAY AND WEDNESDAY AT 7:30PM at the CIRCLE THEATER OF THE GOLDEN BOUGH, MONTE VERDE BETWEEN 8TH AND 9TH, CARMEL. tickets are $20-$35. 622-0100 OR WWW.PACREP.ORG.