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From a well of grief, his play shines light

September 29, 2004|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

William Nicholson doesn't remember exactly what drew him back five years ago to his personal book of grief, the diary he kept as a young man.

When he opened it, tears came. And with them the impetus, and some of the verbatim lines, for the only autobiographical piece this prolific English playwright-screenwriter-novelist has done. "The Retreat From Moscow," having its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory, is a drama about Nicholson's days as a human shuttlecock, volleyed back and forth by loving, well-meaning but deeply unhappy parents who inflicted their damage on him as their long marriage disintegrated.

Nicholson made his name in the early 1990s with the stage and screen hit "Shadowlands," an intellectual tear-jerker about confirmed bachelor C.S. Lewis' late-blooming love for Joy Gresham, only to lose her to cancer. As one of three screenwriters for "Gladiator," he gave spiritual longings to the Roman warrior played by Russell Crowe. And "Wind on Fire," a trilogy of philosophical fantasy books for children published a few years ago, has established Nicholson in his mid-50s as the successful novelist he yearned to be when he was a young man filling diary pages with the hurt of rejections both literary (his first eight novels went unpublished) and romantic.

He said, she said

Writers, especially those in their 50s, don't usually ask permission to tell a story. But Nicholson knew he would need parental consent for "The Retreat From Moscow."

He says that for his mother, Hope, now 88, the hurt of being left by his father, Basil, for another woman "never went away." It was a shattering experience for a devout Roman Catholic who believed marriage was for life and to discard it was to commit a kind of murder. Years later, she still would bring it up, and Nicholson thinks he may have gone back to his diary entries from his late 20s, the time of the breakup, to check the accuracy of something she recalled.

"I took it out, and it just made me weep," he said recently by phone from his home in the hills of Sussex. "And I thought, 'Is there any way I can bring any good out of this? How can I throw a light on this that doesn't make it all a pitiful waste?' "

The play's title, and one of its organizing metaphors, was in his diary: an observation that his mother "in one of her worst moments" had likened her trauma as a spurned wife to the almost complete destruction of Napoleon's army on its trek back from the failed invasion of Russia during the brutal winter of 1812.

From the start, Nicholson resolved to give his parents veto power over whether his script could be staged. He sensed that enough time had passed, and that the wounds had crusted over enough, for them to accept a public retelling of their marriage through a play that is fictionalized in certain details, but preserves the shape and emotional flow of the actual breakup. The play's passionate but dauntingly demanding wife pushes and prods her detached, placid, ill-matched mate to open up and become emotionally engaged in the marriage. Instead, he retreats into the arms of another. The distraught wife tries to save the marriage. The husband wants only to cut his losses and find some peace and comfort after years of unhappiness. The son becomes their reluctant liaison and confessor.

Nicholson says his parents read the script and consented, their comments limited to rather tangential details, both failing to see the true emotional effect of what he had written.

They saw the play -- separately -- when it premiered in England in 1999. His father, now 85, said and revealed little, that being his nature. His mother, Nicholson says, was "completely stunned," but not offended.

"I tried very hard, because I love them both, to present the feelings and dilemmas of each in a way as sympathetic as possible," he says. "It's about two good people causing each other tremendous pain."

When "The Retreat From Moscow" opened in New York last fall, with John Lithgow and Eileen Atkins as the warring couple, critics were as divided as the marriage the play depicted. The New Yorker's John Lahr celebrated it as a work of "subtle and powerful evocation" and "marvelous emotional complexity," and Howard Kissel in the Daily News hailed it as "that Broadway rarity, a play for adults, challengingly written and performed." But others, including Ben Brantley in the New York Times and Linda Winer in Newsday, found it a dreary slog with nothing new or insightful to say about an ultra-familiar subject.

Nicholson -- who graduated from Cambridge and embarked on a career creating documentaries for the BBC -- says such a split in opinion was inevitable.

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