The Retreat from Moscow from Country Playhouse Is Excellent High Drama

The setup:

After 30 years, a middle-class English marriage comes apart at the seams in William Nicholson's perceptive and elegiac chamber drama, beautifully detailed and acted in Country Playhouse's production.

The execution:

Writer Nicholson, with his varied career (play Shadowlands, novel The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, films First Knight, Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Gladiator), returns to his favorite theme, which he has called "making sense of this messy life." One survives, endures and makes the most of the worst times, that's all one can truly ask. Life arrives at the most peculiar moment and you'd best be ready for it.

Alice and Edward (Karen Ross and Jim Salners) have kept at their marriage for three decades, but neither is happy. He's emotionally distant, which drives her batty. She's nitpicky and has been "getting at him" for years now. "Look at me, talk to me, talk about you," she implores. He retreats into his beloved crossword puzzles or historical diaries about Napoleon's disastrous 1812 Russian campaign, when the invincible French army was torn to tatters by incompetence and the fierce winter weather.

Edward's inevitable retreat is into the arms of another woman. Alice is betrayed and feels as if she's been murdered. The entire marriage has been a sham. Into the vortex, their unmarried son Jamie (Scott McWhirter) is forced to be referee. Asked to deliver messages from both camps, he attempts to be as comforting to each as best he can, although he's not strong enough to be either rock or shelter. All three are wracked by guilt. What's to become of them is the quiet mystery the play sets out to resolve.

Alice is writing a compilation, so we get appropriate snippets from Rilke, Rossetti and Blake, in counterpoint to the harrowing descriptions of the unfortunate French freezing to death from Edward's book. It's all about survival and what one has to do to carry on. The English have a lock on this ordinary-man-in-extremis material, yet Nicholson transforms what might have become arch and fey into the stuff of everyday life.

Under Rachel Mattox's elegant and softly pointed direction, the trio does exceptional work. Salners, at first all tweedy and worn about the elbows, shows banked fire when pushed to the wall. His Act I closing monologue, in which he remembers meeting Alice on a train and how that day changed his life, is immensely moving, while Ross is simply superb as the smart wife whose life seems all but over when her marriage collapses. At least widows have a definite ending to their marriage, she spits out in envy. Her flashes of wicked wit help illuminate even the darkest of her hours. McWhirter finds the haunted adult interior to Jamie's little-boy-lost and turns that quiet life of desperation into a finely etched portrait.

The verdict:

Scenic designer Steve Carpentier's gauzy backdrop, behind which can be seen silhouettes of trees stripped of their leaves, is perfect visual accompaniment to Nicholson's taut, wintry personal drama. The ordinary shocks Nicholson depicts are just as seismic as the Russian winter was to Napoleon, and retreat, if used for survival, is sometimes the only way to move forward. This is high drama of a very special kind.

The Retreat from Moscow runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through October 27 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury Lane. Tickets can be purchased online at www.countryplayhouse.org or by calling 713-467-4497.

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