Misery loves company, but three’s a crowd : Ensemble Theatre’s “Therese Raquin” brings out the heartache

Lauren Lovett, left, plays the title role in Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Therese Raquin,” alongside Jamison Jones as Laurent.

February 19, 2008 7:40 AM

When èmile Zola wrote “Thèrèse Raquin” in 1827, its tale of murder and guilt was seen as part of a new realism. Desperate living conditions, grim lodgings, unhappy marriages — these were subjects 19th century France hadn’t much explored in fiction.
But to our eyes, with its spiraling guilt, insanity and the occasional apparition, Zola’s work feels decidedly gothic. Maybe it was the oil lamps and the creaky floorboards. But whatever the outlook, Ensemble Theatre’s adaptation of Zola’s play succeeds with a slight uncomfortableness coupled with humor.
Thèrèse, played by Lauren Lovett, first appears as a stoic, blank-faced woman. At an early age, she was abandoned before being taken in by Madame Raquin (Barbara Tarbuck). The two live above a shop in a Paris apartment with Camille (Michael Matthys), Raquin’s milquetoast son, to whom Thèrèse is now married. As Thèrèse says of their arranged wedding night, she turned left to go into Camille’s room instead of going to her old room, and that was the only difference.
Frequent visits from Laurent (Jamison Jones), a starving artist and childhood friend who recently came back into the couple’s life, keep Thèrèse quiet through her miserable life. And when no one else is around, Laurent and Thèrèse throw themselves at each other with animalistic abandon.
Zola’s play, adapted by Nicholas Wright, kicks into gear when Laurent and Thèrèse wonder if an “accident” might take Camille out of commission and allow them to marry. And what do you know — Camille invites both out for a boat trip on the River Seine.
Anyone with a nose for noir can guess the plans don’t end well. Camille is pushed off the boat, and Zola surrounds his murderous lovebirds with an assortment of gullible characters and fortuitous happenstance that keeps them from becoming found out. If only Laurent and Thèrèse could have kept their guilt at bay, they would have been OK. But in “Thèrèse Raquin,” the characters wind up as trapped as they were at the beginning of the play.
But what keeps Zola’s play interesting is his astute view of fetish and desire. When Camille was alive, Thèrèse and Laurent would make passionate love, but once he was out of the picture and Thèrèse and Laurent married, their passion dissipated. At one point, Laurent leaves their wedding night chamber and turns up at the secret passage used for their early trysts. It works for a second, before Thèrèse moans, “We can’t even fool ourselves!”
Camille gets the first line of the play: “May I speak?” He’s sitting for a portrait that soon will be anchored in the bedroom. As Zola shows, Camille spends the rest of the play (alive and dead) trying to dominate the conversation, and he succeeds.
Director Jonathan Fox balances the play’s melodrama with comic relief from Camille’s oblivious friends, who are too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice what happened to their friend.
Ms. Tarbuck’s Madame Raquin dominates the stage — charming but suffocating, self-pitying and manipulative, and we are never too sure how to feel about her suffering. Ms. Tarbuck plays her role as straightforwardly as possible, and in her final act — frozen in bitterness and hatred — such a sad fate seems just as punishment.
As for Ms. Lovett’s Thèrèse, she does a lot to make us care about a character that never attains happiness and abuses those who love her. As Laurent, Mr. Jones conceals his motives well — as is briefly mentioned near the end, he may have struck up his relationship with Thèrèse because prostitutes became too expensive for his income. Put that way, Laurent may be the worst in the bunch — but Mr. Jones’ charisma distracts us.
Scenic designer Harry Feiner keeps the grimy realism coming in this meticulous set, with greens and browns dominating and never enough light.
If the play has a weakness, it’s in the third act, where bickering and unpleasantness threaten to turn Zola’s play into soap opera. But that is probably how Zola wanted it. Long before the kitchen even had a sink, he knew audiences would love that look inside their neighbor’s apartment, or even their own.

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

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