by: Carol Rocamora
Oh, those unfortunate 19th century heroines of the page and stage. They’re trapped in loveless marriages, suffocated by society, frustrated, desperate, driven to self-destruction. And yet, they still fascinate us. Every other year, it seems, a caged Hedda Gabler stalks the New York stages (Kate Burton, Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth Marvel, and Mary Louise Parker, to name only a recent few). Last year, we felt the misery of Mia Wasikowska’s Madame Bovary in Sophie Barthes’s film adaptation. We haven’t seen an Anna Karenina in a while, but I’ll bet she’ll be around again soon.
And now we have Thérèse Raquin, the ill-fated protagonist of Émile Zola’s eponymous novel. Her tale is now being told at the Roundabout’s Studio 54, adapted for the stage with economy and precision by Helen Edmundson. It’s a project that has excited Roundabout’s Todd Haimes for years, and he celebrates his company’s 50th anniversary with a gripping production of this commission, featuring a compelling stage debut of British screen actress Keira Knightley.
Thérèse’s story is a sad one. She’s a young Frenchwoman from a small village (c. 1868), barely come of age, forced by an overbearing aunt into an arranged (sexless) marriage with her sickly, repulsive cousin Camille, whom she hates and can’t bear to touch. The ménage à trois moves to Paris, where Aunt and Thérèse set up a haberdashery shop, while Camille pursues a business career. When Camille brings home an office mate, the handsome and self-assured Laurent (who is also a painter), he and the lonely Thérèse plunge into a secret, torrid love affair. When it becomes more and more difficult for them to meet, the desperate lovers devise a plan kill the invalid Camille, so they can marry and live together openly. How they conspire to do the deed, and then face the dire consequences, constitutes the rest of the drama.
Knightley has invested deeply into her debut, giving it every ounce of strength she can muster. She faces a long journey and a broad arc of emotions to play, and she embraces the challenge. As the young, repressed maid facing a dreaded marriage, her slender frame is rod-like with rigidity, while her pale white face radiates panic. It’s as if her entire body is paralyzed, unable to inhale a single breath of life. Then, when she plunges into the affair with Laurent, she fairly explodes with pent-up passion and rage. After the deed is done, however, she seems to disintegrate, as she begins her descent into guilt-torn madness and paranoia. Gabriel Ebert is pitch-perfect as the repulsive Camille, playing his sadistic games with relish. Judith Light succeeds in making the domineering Aunt almost likeable. Matt Ryan plays the caddish Laurent with genuine charm, and his scenes with Knightley generate a palpable passion.
Director Evan Cabnet directs this lurid tale as a thriller, pushing it to its Gothic, melodramatic extremes. The scenes are short and sharp, flying by at breakneck speed. Beowulf Boritt’s stunning set features a vast empty space, with a huge backdrop whose palette reflects the extreme moods of the characters – from deadly blacks to drab grays to flashing golds and burning bronzes. Outdoor and indoor scenes alternate with fluidity and grace. There’s a scene in a rowboat on a real onstage river, where the lovers lure the unsuspecting Camille into a fateful outing. The claustrophobic Paris flat flies down from the theatre’s heights with alarming speed, where the terrible events play out. At one point, the flat flies up, disappears, and is replaced with Laurent’s tiny atelier, where the lovers dream of a future together. It dangles above the stage floor against a backdrop studded with stars – signifying a fleeting moment of hope and happiness in their doomed relationship.
At one point in the spellbinding second act, there are audible gasps in the audience when the ghost of Camille calls out “Thérèse,” and a disembodied hand appears in the parlor gripping the curtains (it turns out to be the Aunt’s). I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s worth waiting for. Rarely are we treated to a full meal of melodrama in today’s theatre – one that’s calorie-rich in plot and character, and one that delivers the thrilling, chilling payoffs of a luridly satisfying story.
Thérèse Raquin, by Helen Edmundson, based on the novel by Émile Zola, at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, New York, now through
Thru January 3, www.roundabouttheatre.org.
Photos: Joan Marcus