Come on Thérèse Raquin, Get to the Point…
The show at Roundabout’s Studio 54 theatre, Thérèse Raquin has some pretty serious negative buzz surrounding it. I haven’t read the reviews but word on the street is that it’s a bit dull and depressing. Solemn and slow. So when I showed up on a beautiful fall-like December Sunday for a matinee performance, I wasn’t feeling all that excited or intrigued. But I’m happy to say, I didn’t find the darkness deafening nor depressing as much as anticipated.
This is a spectacularly designed story of a pretty depressing French tale. The visual landscape of the show is just magnificent. From the great expanse of water and sky to the darkness that descends from the heavens. As Thérèse (a wonderful but perhaps slightly too subtle and dour Keira Knightley) desperately speaks of loving the light, a meticulously designed heavy and dark Paris apartment lowers down and overtakes the stage. This is the dreaded nightmare that Thérèse finds herself imprisoned within. In short, this is a story of a woman’s powerlessness when abandoned at a young age to her aunt (a fine Judith Light) who is also an overbearing mother to her frail cousin, Camille (a slightly too dastardly Gabriel Ebert). Once she is old enough in her aunt’s eyes, she is married off to her annoying and arrogant cousin, and sees before her a life of boredom, misery, and unhappiness. Trapped in a loveless marriage echoed by the dark shuttered apartment, we feel her depression and melancholy in every inch of the space surrounding her.
This setup is almost too successful for it’s own good. We do feel exactly what we are to feel at this moment, but I would ask, why did the play take so long to get us there? Here, in essence is the problem with the production. It feels to me like the playwright, Helen Edmundson may have stayed too confined within the novel by Emile Zola, rather then compressing the lead-up to the claustrophobic confinement of Thérèse. It seems to take so long to get to the moment when the dashing Laurent (the definitely handsome and sexy Matt Ryan) comes up those stairs and brings some brightness, fire, and sexual excitement to Thérèse and to the play itself. The heat feels long overdue but we are glad for it.
My favorite moments were when these two showed us their fire and their sexual passion both in her bedroom and in his attic apartment. Finally some light and air as the shackles fall away from Thérèse’s body and mind. But sadly it doesn’t last long as they drop into desperation, murder and then guilt and madness. Once again we find ourselves trapped in darkness and despair. This hysteria too seems to drag on and on, until the obvious and depressed ending, leaving us feeling like that heavy apartment landed on us, and sapped the air out of our lungs.
This does make it sound like I didn’t particularly enjoy the play. In many ways I didn’t but in some ways I did. The visuals are probably the most beautiful things about this production. It’s an exceptional piece of theatrical design in all its aspects (Beowulf Boritt/set design; Jane Greenwood/costume design; Keith Parham/lighting design; Josh Schmidt/sound design). In everyway possible, they created an atmosphere that spoke volumes, beyond the simple fact that it was also just plain stunning to behold.
The play itself is too long and repetitive emotionally. The darkness and the depression are far too invasive for us to take for such long periods of time. The cast should be given much credit to keep us as engaged as we are. They all perform beautifully; servicing the play as demanded. Judith Light gifts us with quite an achievement in Act 2 when a stroke imprisons her in a wheel chair unable to speak or move totally dependent on her daughter-in-law and Laurent. She must sit there as still and motionless (as much of the play is around her), knowing the murderous truth of her two caregivers, but unable to do or say anything about it. And we must see and feel her fear, her anger, and her imprisonment just by looking into her eyes. I must say that in many ways, we feel shades of the same. Trapped while everyone wrings their hands and flails around them hysterically.
Ultimately, this story is about imprisonment. First in a loveless difficult marriage, powerless for change, then a haunting nightmare of guilt and fear, and also one of physical and/or emotional imprisonment unable to speak your mind. In some ways, our imprisonment within Thérèse Raguin is a bit too drawn-out. With some editing of the play, this might feel less like a prison, and more like a deeply moving sad tragedy. So come on you guys, and director, Evan Cabnet, let’s get to the point. Don’t prolong our sentence.