Much like the husband at the center of its love triangle, Therese Raquin, which closed earlier this month at Studio 54, was a victim waiting to happen. In the title role was a big-screen star, Keira Knightley, making her Broadway debut—an irresistible target for critics wanting to take her down a peg.
The upshot of the criticism seemed to be that a) from the moment she stepped on the stage, Ms. Knightley was dour; and b) that the play itself was so depressing as not to allow the audience a moment’s relief.
To those two criticisms, the answers are readily at hand:
* Ms. Knightley was playing the character as written—not just in this adaptation by Helen Edmundson, but also in its original source, the 19th-century French Naturalist novel by Emile Zola; and
* That novel may be relentless, but in its swift power, it clearly inspired two works on infidelity and murder central to crime fiction and film noir, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity—neither of which, I recall, has ever been labeled “depressing,” despite the obvious presence of death in both.
The plot revolves around Therese, an orphan taken in by her aunt, a Paris haberdasher who works in dingy surroundings and spoils her only child, Camille, who grows up sickly and selfish. Madame Raquin not only makes the young girl Camille’s companion and guinea pig (she’s expected to taste his medicine first to assure it won’t harm him), but also, when she comes of age, his wife.
Therese’s life of quiet desperation is interrupted by the arrival at the Raquins’ apartment of Laurent (played by Matt Ryan), a fellow worker at Camille’s office whom she eyes with an almost palpable hunger as soon as he enters the house. The casually virile Laurent easily seduces his friend’s repressed wife. But, to his enormous surprise, this easygoing, jaded womanizer, filled with artistic pretensions but little talent, finds Therese has entered his blood so much that he can’t do without her. The only solution they see is doing away with Camille.
Fooling the authorities is one thing (Zola—and Edmondson—has a great deal of satiric fun at the expense of Michaud, a now-retired police commissioner who, in his weekly games of dominoes at the Raquins’ apartment, never suspects the worst). But living with the consequences of their crime is something else. The path to freedom and matrimony lies strewn with reminders of their crime, and before long the conscience-stricken killers are turning on one another.
The dramatic possibilities of this material seem endless. (Zola took an unsuccessful stab at it, in an 1873 Paris production that lasted only nine performances.) I myself became aware of the novel through a 1979 adaptation for Masterpiece Theatre starring Kate Nelligan and Brian Cox as the illicit lovers. It has also been staged as a ballet, an opera, a silent film, sound movie adaptations (The Adultress, 1953, and In Secret, 2013), and, transported to post-WWII New Orleans, a short-lived 2001 Broadway musical created by Harry Connick Jr., Thou Shalt Not.
Edmondson has remained largely faithful to her source material, which is more of a challenge than it might seem at first, as Zola’s frequent omniscient narration requires her to use dialogue to make points explicitly for spectators (e.g., Knightly’s electrifying speech to Ryan’s Laurent, when she vents her physical disgust for her sickly husband).
Director Evan Cabnet staged this tale of crime and punishment in such a way that the psychic claustrophobia used to ratchet up tension was preserved while modifying the novelist’s paint-by-numbers determinism. While Zola, for instance, was at pains to tell readers that he “set out to study temperament, not character,” Cabnet insisted on showing moments when his killers could have turned out differently. Therese, for instance, when she temporarily (and mistakenly) believes that her mental burden is being lifted, whistles while doing household chores and lets her hair tumble out of its usual, repressed bun. And Laurent hesitates on the brink of performing murder until a casual insult from Camille—“Peasant!”—unleashes a storm of seething class resentment.
Knightly and Ryan are particularly powerful in enacting the confused impulses—the urgea toward freedom, lust, conscience and terror—that assail them on the river when they murder Camille. Also powerful is Judith Light as Madame Raquin, forced by circumstance from controlling to sorrowing to silently vengeful. Light might be most famous for her TV work (Transparent, One Life to Live, and Who’s the Boss?). But here, as in the other time I saw her onstage, as the witty, alcoholic wife of a football legend in Lombardi, she demonstrated that she is also a theater performer of enormous skill and versatility.
Forget about the surface costume-drama elements of this. In the hands of the Roundabout, Therese Raquin became an eternally relevant melodrama of the “affinity of blood and lust” of illicit lovers, as old as the Bible and as contemporary as today’s tabloid headlines.