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Scenes from this marriage are madness

THEATER: 'The Retreat From Moscow'
by: ©2007 OWEN CAREY, Poet Alice (JoAnn Johnson) torments her professor husband, Edward (Keith Scales), in “The Retreat From Moscow,” which may be Portland’s best play this season.

Two kinds of insanity, kept alive over three decades, conspire to destroy a marriage in 'The Retreat From Moscow,' William Nicholson's riveting drama at Artists Repertory Theatre.

The more obvious pathology afflicts Alice (JoAnn Johnson), a middle-age English poet whose joyless, controlling behavior torments her university professor husband, Edward (Keith Scales).

He, in turn, has submitted to a paralyzing disease of his own, a crippling unwillingness to defend himself or confront the corrosive malaise that has settled in. Between them is a grown son, Jamie (Alex Moggridge), who has returned home to mediate.

There is nothing especially rare about the maladies portrayed, nor is the path the couple will take particularly surprising. But everything else in this production of Nicholson's brilliant play is a revelation.

Jeff Seats' set - shifting plates for a floor and an orchard of bare trees that doubles as an outsized crown of thorns - is painted in several shades of somber by Jason Winslow's deft lighting.

The couple is devoted to words and stories, yet the playwright never trips himself up with literary affectations, and director Jon Kretzu's cast pulls the play's intelligence around itself like a comfortable robe.

Despite the tragedy tearing at its heart, the family is kept upright - even light on its feet - by decorum and dignity. This balancing act is accomplished most spectacularly by Johnson, who maintains an unlikely charm even as she conveys near madness throughout.

Yet as superbly as the veteran actress does this, she is nearly matched in the effort by Scales, in a wonderfully modulated performance, and Moggridge, as the tortured son trapped in the rubble of his parents' marriage.

His poetic but oblique elegy closes the play on a rather jarring note, the first of the entire production. But it matters little. By that time, the audience knows it has seen a masterpiece, quite possibly the best play in Portland this season.

- Eric Bartels

8 p.m. FRIDAY and SATURDAY, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. SUNDAY, 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, through April 29, Artists Repertory Theatre Mainstage, 1516 S.W. Alder St., 503-241-1278, www.artistsrep.org, $20-$42.50