By Senior Writer, Shari Lifland (@ShariOnTheAisle)
Love, lust, betrayal, and guilt—some things never go out of fashion. That’s why Roundabout’s new adaptation (by British playwright Helen Edmundson) of Émile Zola’s 1867 novel still resonates with today’s audiences. It’s a dark, tawdry, morality tale in the tradition of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. And, as in those sensationalist films noir, it’s clear from the start that things will not end well.
Oscar-nominated film star Keira Knightley, in an impressive Broadway debut, plays the title character, a young woman who is literally suffocating in the household of the well-meaning but controlling aunt who raised her (the always excellent two-time Tony Award winner Judith Light) and her self-centered, pampered cousin, Camille (Gabriel Ebert, in a sympathetic, nuanced performance that avoids caricature). Soon after her 21st birthday, Thérèse and Camille become husband wife, according to Madame Raquin’s longtime wish. Although Thérèse moves into Camille’s room, the two are married in name only; nothing changes once the two are wed. Thérèse continues to sleepwalk through life—alive, but not really among the living. In fact, during the first part of the play, Knightly portrays her character as almost autistic—a wretched creature, hunched over, cowering in the corner, avoiding eye contact with those around her. She remains mute for nearly half of the play’s first act, speaking only when she is outdoors by the river, where she dreams of escaping her claustrophobic life, imploring the flowing waters to carry her away and to: “Let me live!”
Thérèse does get her chance at life, in the form of Laurent (Matt Ryan, of the TV show “Constantine”), a childhood friend whom Camille brings home from work one night. From the moment she first sees the free-spirited young man, Thérèse’s eyes come ablaze. The two begin a secret, torrid affair. Having finally experienced passion for the first time, Thérèse soon becomes obsessed with her lover, declaring, “There is blood in my veins! I thought they had bled me dry!”
Laurent, an unambitious artist-manqué, initially pursues Thérèse out of lust and boredom. But he soon becomes hopelessly ensnared in the adulterous affair, telling his lover, “I’m addicted to you!” Their passion eventually leads to Camille’s murder, and while they get away with their crime, their guilt continually gnaws at them, destroying any chance for happiness.
Zola was a founder and fervent practitioner of the “naturalist” literary movement, a darker, more extreme version of its predecessor, realism. The naturalists believed in a sort of fatalism, where people become trapped by forces they cannot control, and from which there is no escape. Thérèse Raquin is a classic example of the genre: from the moment the lovers meet, their fate is sealed. The wheels are set in motion for their passion, betrayal, and ultimate destruction.
**NOTE, SPOILERS BELOW**
Similarly, Madame Raquin, an overly solicitous mother whose entire raison d’être is to ensure the well-being of her son, is ultimately powerless to prevent his sudden, untimely death. Once she loses Camille, she declines rapidly, suffering a series of debilitating strokes that render her mute and barely able to move. Even worse, when she overhears a conversation between Thérèse and Laurent that reveals their guilt in her beloved Camille’s murder, she is physically unable to share this knowledge with anyone. In one particularly riveting scene, Madame Raquin tries to communicate what she knows to her guests during their weekly game of dominos. With great effort she uses one finger to trace letters on the table, spelling out “Thérèse and Laurent k…” until she loses strength. Her guests, including a clueless police chief, assume she is attempting to let them know that Thérèse and Laurent keep taking such good care of her. The emotion Light conveys in this scene, using only her eyes, is heartbreaking.
Although Roundabout has put together a first rate cast for this production, from the four leads to the supporting characters (Jeff Still as the efficiency-obsessed Monsieur Grivet, David Patrick Kelly as the dapper Superintendent Michaud, and Mary Wiseman as Michaud’s sweet niece Suzanne), the flesh and blood actors are often upstaged by the brilliant stagecraft that surrounds them. Beowulf Boritt’s earth-toned sets and Keith Parham’s somber lighting deserve star billing along with the actors. Their designs use the full height and depth of the Studio 54 stage to create stunning spaces that echo the characters’ sense of darkness and suffocation. The family’s Parisian apartment descends from on high; Laurent’s garret room is suspended in mid-air; there’s even a real river where poor Camille meets his watery end.
Director Evan Cabnet (an associate artist at Roundabout) generally maintains an engagingly edgy mood and keeps things moving, until the last 15 minutes or so, when Thérèse and Laurent’s tortured suffering becomes too protracted. The two ultimately decide to end their lives by sharing a drink that is “strong and quick.” The play would have ended on a more satisfying note had its final moments been more like that drink.
Thérèse Raquin continues at Roundabout’s Studio 54 through January 3, 2016.
For more information, www.roundabouttheatre.org.