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Retreat into laughter



‘The Retreat From Moscow’

Arkansas Repertory Theatre

April 14

If you’re in the mood for a good laugh, a good cry and some good theater, don’t miss the Rep’s production of William Nicholson’s “The Retreat From Moscow.”

The Rep’s Second Stage creates the perfect, intimate atmosphere for the small cast of three, and puts the audience right in the middle of the family’s “murder.” That’s murder as it is seen by the mother in the story, Alice, played by Rep veteran JoAnn Johnson, who after 33 years of marriage is suddenly left for another woman by her husband, Edward, played by Rep first-timer Samuel Maupin. These two characters that met, as Edward confides to his son, played by Tom Bateman, “on the wrong train,” are complete opposites who have grown unhappy with the routine of a routine marriage.

While the general plot is obviously rather melancholy, the tension is relieved by the quirky, comedic happenings of families and of people in general. The audience can’t help but sympathize, and try their hardest to choose sides, which they will find is impossible.

During the play’s opening scenes I found myself annoyed by Alice and her constant nagging at Edward, but midway through, the eccentric, separated wife reveals to us what it is like to be middle-aged and suddenly alone. Alice really opens up wide to the audience to relate the little changes that make it unbearably impossible to get through her new life: watching more television than before, making a meal for only herself, not having to dress in the morning because no one will see her. Johnson passionately reveals every lonely person’s greatest fear: “What’s going to happen to me when I am old?”

It is a story of survival, though, and also the guilt of the strong who are able to make it.

At the play’s core is the story of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, which Edward, the history teacher, keeps coming back to. The painting of the same name, by Adolph Northern, is projected onto the set as the audience awaits the play’s opening scene. “Retreat” is a story of traitors and abandonment, and a situation where the strong do what they have to for their own survival, even if it means leaving others behind or, in Edward’s case, “murdering” a family to escape unhappiness.

The audience members are all invited into the small set and family home, made up of a kitchen, dining room and living room. And in this small, enclosed theater, sitting in the “back” on the fourth row, it is impossible for one to look away from this family’s problems, and for the actors themselves, all three visible throughout, to be uninvolved in the action. For two hours I got a glimpse of something that I personally have never experienced but, as Alice says, statistically half of all families have. All three actors, who played their roles perfectly, filled the audience with laughter and (I can only speak for myself here) tears, and finished to a standing ovation.

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