Therese Raquin revived in an immersive Broadway production by the Roundabout Theater Company
Whether you are sitting in a first row orchestra seat, or acquired a last minute rush ticket in the very far back of Studio 54, the new Broadway production of Therese Raquin by the Roundabout Theater Company guarantees an emotionally stirring journey through the cheerless life of the play’s title character. Supported by Josh Schmidt’s effective sound design, the superb cast (starring Keira Knightley, Gabriel Ebert, Matt Rayan and Judith Light,) excels in creating the tensely charged atmosphere necessary for this tale of murder and adultery. After all, Helen Edmundson’s script adaptation as directed by Evan Cabnet, might take the bleakness and bitterness inherent in the play’s themes, a little too much to heart, leaving little space for moments of comic relief.
The play opens in 19th-century rural France, where Camille (Gabriel Ebert), his mother (Judith Light) and his cousin Therese Raquin (Keira Knightley) share a modest household together. Camille, struggling a life time with chronic illnesses, doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the women’s obliging nature and commands them to his will. Despite Camille’s wretched health condition, Gabriel Ebert ensures that the audience has no pity for him to spare. From the very start, Camille’s arrogant attitude, his rude behaviour and bluntly spoken words make him a disliked character and force the audience into a personal struggle with the instinct to respect and care for a sicken man.
Keira Knightley in the role of Therese Raquin, remains without text for the first three scenes of the play. Yet her slightly crouched posture, joyless intensity and absent-minded gaze suggest Therese’s deep unhappiness. Ms. Knightley’s silent acting is nothing but remarkable. Her slow gait seems inherent in the character’s nature and yet, we get the impression that Therese is considerably restricted in her freedom. Keira Knightley’s facial expressions appear almost neutral, like a façade that covers Therese’s emotions, yet the key lies in her eyes, that express deep hatred and desperate longing for a different life.
From the very start, Ms. Knightley maintains a strong stage presence, significantly fuelling anxious tension in the audience, which impatiently anticipates the first spoken words by the movie star. As a result, her first monologue at the river might stir a sudden feeling of unexpected disappointment in an audience member, as the quiet, weakly spoken words contrast the actress’ powerful appearance. Not however, do they oppose Therese’s character, who for the first time confesses her longing for a different life in her talk to the river.
Judith Light successfully portrays Mme Raquin’s unconditional love for her son Camille, which leads to a complete ignorance of Therese’s feelings. Ms. Light draws a picture of Madame Raquin that is certainly less hatred than in a reading of the original text, yet not flawless and hardly pitied either. Her convincing play of reasonable well-intentions, almost leads the audience to buy into the character’s innocence in the development of the events. Yet, the beginning scenes clearly show, her dependency on Camille’s love results in an inflicted oppression of Therese, turning her into a maid and unhappy bride of her petulant cousin.
When Camille moves with his family to Paris, he reconnects with his old friend Laurent (Matt Ryan), whom he meets at his new work place. When the handsome painter begins to join the weekly game nights hosted Mme Raquin, the air becomes sensually charged with the immediate electricity between Therese and Laurent. Soon they become entangled into an obsessive affair, struggling to keep their lust and love hidden from the public. In a moment of uncontrollable desire and desperation, Laurent admits, “I wish we could be rid of [Camille]!” and herewith releases the vermin, which should soon exterminate the blossoms of their young love.
The play is loaded with heavy subject matter, and by the time the second act starts, even the fantastic cast of this Roundabout Production is unable to escape the melodramatic tendency of Zola’s original writings. The deadly drowning scene ends the first act in a dramatic climax and provides fertile ground for the emotional and mental breakdown of the couple in the second half of the play. Laurent and Therese have killed Camille and feelings of guilt and regret rob them of their sleep and love for each other. With utmost intensity and fierce passion Keira Knightley and Gabriel Ebert provide the audience with a show full of violent fights, desperate passion, hunting hallucinations and the fear of death.
The only comic relief is provided by occasional Thursday card game nights with their old friends. But even the always punctual Monsieur Grivet (in a successfully light-hearted performance by Jeff Still), Superintendent Michaud (played by David Patrick Kelly) and Mary Wiseman in the role of his love-sickened niece are unable to bring joy into the life of Therese and Laurent. Soon even these weekly gatherings turn into dialogues full of uncomfortable tension, at last with Laurent’s attempt to justify his marriage to Therese in lying about Camille’s last wish.
The conflict between Therese and Laurent becomes increasingly apprehensive when Laurent begins to physically abuse his wife as result of her ever-rejecting gestures, frantic screaming and expression of repulsiveness. Therese, hunted by the hallucinated ghosts of Camille, blames Laurent for his murder. After Mme Raquin suffers from a stroke upon overhearing a fight between the newly married couple, Therese denies all guilt, while her hatred for Laurent grows into an unbearable feeling.
With all this built up drama, the dreadful ending comes with little surprise, yet a big relief in the audience, whose capacity to bear the plot’s inexorability might become a little overstretched in this 180 minutes performance. Ultimately, the problem lies in the script that leaves Therese without a glimmer of hope, and thus, the audience with little to admire and root for in the character.
The sophisticated set by Beowulf Boritt is beautifully aesthetic, yet altogether lacks in practicality. The flying in of a massive apartment structure is certainly impressive, less so is the unintentional dull sound every time it hits the stage. The claustrophobic room in Paris, constructed with beautiful dark wood and filled with antique furniture, leaves little space for the actors to move around, which highlights Even Cabnet’s stylized blocking work. Unfortunately, it also causes the many changes between scenes and space to appear rather ungainly; the director remains little inventive in spotlighting a single actor, while other cast members move to their new positions. After all, the small space proves successful in the representation of Therese’s psychological cage, yet there are some missteps in the directing that aimed to compromise the detail-loaded set.
In the end, a touch of more lightness in the opening scenes and additional moments of comic relief might have given the play a little more trajectory and as such, kept the second act anchored in reality rather than following Zola’s melodramatic tendency. That said, the production provides an immersive theatrical experience for all visitors (regardless of their seating), with superb acting performances, Borrit’s fascinating stage magic and a richly textured soundscape by Josh Schmidt.