The Potomac Theatre Project's production of Neal Bell's 1991 theatrical reconstruction of Émile Zola's novel is considered and competent, and therein lies its strength and its weakness.
First published as a novel in 1867, and then adapted by Zola himself into a play in 1873, "Thérèse Raquin" became the opening assault by a generation of European artists against what they considered the encrusted art forms of their day: against pretension and social irrelevance they would bring to bear the power of scientific observation of real life, grounded (more often than not) in the life of the lower orders. Zola used the preface to the second edition of "Thér Raquin" to post the argument that his art would examine "temperaments, not characters," and how the interactions of these temperaments would inevitably lead, as in a scientific experiment, to the tragic conclusions of the novel.
The core story of "Thérèse Raquin" is age-old and simple: Thérèse, in a loveless marriage to her spoiled and sickly cousin, Camille, more or less engineered by the cousin's mother, meets Laurent, a handsome young painter, and engages in an affair that leads to the murder of the husband, a wave of remorse, and their mutual suicide to escape the guilt. Director Jim Petosa stages everything simply: two wooden chairs (along with a few other props) serve to create time and place; scenes are short and crisply choreographed, efficiently piling evidence upon evidence, buoyed by a (sometimes) lachrymose score; and the primary actors (Helen-Jean Arthur as the mother, Lily Balsen as Thérèse, Willie Orbison as Camille, and Scott Janes as Laurent) command the stage, especially Arthur and Balsen. All the elements conspire to create an evening of unified and proficient theatre.
A certain dullness does creep in as we watch the unfolding of this experiment because we know, right from get-go, that this will not end well for anyone, and no degree of theatrical competence can overcome the fact that the audience is ahead of story almost all the way through. And I wish Petosa and PTP/NYC had delved a little into what it means to produce a play like "Thérèse Raquin" in 2009 in a culture besotted with misdeeds every bit as lurid and lascivious as the crime perpetrated by Thérèse and Laurent. Why do this play now? What does it have to say to a contemporary audience long tutored in irony and self-reference?
But this is really a quibble. With its smooth flow, erotic energy, and artful elements, "Thérèse Raquin" will please if not excite, and these days, given what passes for artistic fare, such competence and clarity of vision is a welcome offering.