Naturalism and expressionism collide with shattering effectiveness in the Wilton Project's production of "Therese Raquin" at the Stella Adler Theatre.
Emile Zola's seminal work of naturalistic fiction caused an international scandal when published in 1867. Zola's blunt, unprettified representation of the most sordid elements of life--infidelity, murder, madness and suicide--seemed revolutionary in the context of his time. Especially remarkable was Zola's gritty portrayal of his eponymous central character Therese, a brilliantly radical departure from the simpering female prototypes of Victorian convention.
Therese (Leslie Hope) is no delicate flower trampled into the dirt by a lustful seducer. She is a seeping, forbidden fruit, ripe for corruption. Although Therese feels an initial antipathy for the smarmily sexual Laurent (Michael Harris), her resistance is largely a subconscious reaction to her own incipient lustfulness. When Laurent finally makes his first advance, Therese responds avidly and immediately.
Therese and Laurent's subsequent murder of Therese's husband Camille (Robert Fieldsteel) results in their mutual descent into madness and despair. It may be that the vengeful spirit of Camille is actually tormenting them. However, it is more likely that Therese and Laurent are ultimately destroyed by guilt--in their case more a vestigial notion of bourgeoise propriety than any lofty ethical considerations.
Playwright Neal Bell's expressionistic adaptation of Zola's masterwork (which Zola himself adapted into a play in the early 1870s) is both allusive and bold. Bell, who understands that less is more, tersely renders a psychological suspense story that keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Director Charlie Stratton's starkly expressionistic staging of Bell's adaptation succeeds on every level. Through his deft sense of composition, Stratton consistently emphasizes the isolation and repression of his characters. By keeping the pace rattling and the irony fine-honed, Stratton also manages, believe it or not, to infuse humor into the proceedings. Granted, this is humor of the darkest hue, but the unaccustomed laughter gives a whole new texture to Zola's grim morality tale.
Stratton is particularly fortunate in his cast, which includes Mitchell Anderson, David Doty, Chris Flanders and Elizabeth Iannaci, who play the Raquin family's friends and also function as a "chorus," providing appropriate sound effects in addition to commentary. Pamela Gordon has a gullibility as Camille's unfortunate mother, Madame Raquin. Fieldsteel makes Camille as endearing as he is hapless. Harris captures Laurent's progression from shallow ladies' man to dissolute hulk.
And the beautiful Hope, as formidable as she is physically wispy, portrays Therese with a determined ordinariness that makes her actions all the more appalling--and all the more understandable.
\o7 * "Therese Raquin," Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends March 12. $12. (213) 469-3942. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.\f7