Armchair self-helpers like to blab endlessly about how our choices make us what we are. Miserable? It's your choice. Heartbroken? It's your choice. Angry at events big and grand or small and minute? It's your choice.
But in The Retreat From Moscow, William Nicholson's 1999 play about the murder of a marriage, the precipitating event is all about a choice notmade: the refusal of Edward, a reserved, studious history professor, to tell his wife, Alice, that he's unhappy and wants out. Instead, for more than three decades, Edward has hidden and denied he's not in love with the woman who bore his child.
By the time he finally cops to it, his wife is understandably devastated. Although she's a relentless battle-ax who mercilessly criticizes her husband, all Alice has ever really wanted is a dialogue. But Edward's cowardly refusal to face the reality of his unhappiness has built up such anger in her that when he finally does pull the trigger, she goes ballistic.
The beauty of Nicholson's play—which is both bitingly funny and deeply heartfelt—is that both Edward (a brilliantly understated Nicholas Hormann) and Alice (an amazingly feisty and fragile Linda Gehringer) are eminently sympathetic, even though they're both absolute bastards—Edward because of what he doesn't say, Alice because of what she does say. But the elegantly structured play and heart-wrenchingly honest dialogue turns both of them into compelling, believable characters whose anguish and unhappiness become a metaphor for not only every miserable, fucked-up relationship that's ever plagued the Earth, but also for humanity's inherent drive for survival.
Hence the title. Edward is far more interested in reading first-hand accounts of Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812 than he is in confronting his wife. He reads to her and their son, Jamie (a very strong John Sloan), the blood-curdling accounts of an army in which the relatively healthy and strong have to decide to leave the wounded behind to freeze to death in order to make it out alive.
And that's what this play is about: survival—and what you're willing to surrender in order to gain it. Alice perishes if Edward leaves her; Edward dies if he stays.
What saves Moscow from being just another account of the impossibility of healthy relationships is the presence of the couple's son. A single 32-year-old living in London, Jamie has his own emotional issues that have prevented him from finding a relationship that works, and now he's forced to deal with his parent's deteriorating union. But it's that struggle in which the redemption of Nicholson's play lies. At one point, Jamie attempts to console his emotionally ruptured mother. A staunch Catholic, she still clings to her faith, but that's about it. She's despondent, suicidal, angry, bitter. In other words, she's human, cycling through the same series of awful feelings that anyone who's ever loved and lost can identify with. In a beautifully rendered scene, Jamie tells his mother that yes, she can kill herself, but if she chooses not to, she will serve as an eternal example that even when life's anguish and unhappiness become too much for any sane human to bear, it can be endured.
It's a pivotal moment, one that finally gives Alice a chance to stop being a victim and to make a choice that isn't self-destructive. And for a moment, it infuses this play about a hemorrhaging marriage and the incredible cruelty that people inflict upon one another—and themselves—with a liberating dose of existentialism that echoes the simply brilliant articulation of that philosophy by its patron saint, Samuel Beckett, in Molloy: "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."
THE RETREAT FOR MOSCOW at South Coast Repertory Theater, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. through Oct. 17. $19-$50.