Therese Raquin

Greasy Joan & Company

at American Theater Company

By Carol Burbank

Gruesome murders have always fed the popular imagination: bloody spectacles make us aware of our moral fragility, as we speculate with a shiver about who killed JonBenet Ramsey, for example. Are there more bodies under that cellar floor? Why would anyone do that? And what does it feel like?

This fascination is nothing new. In 1867 novelist Emile Zola tried to help people understand the visceral compulsions behind lust and murder in Therese Raquin. Critics condemned the novel (and the play based on it) as pornography. The characters were carnal, amoral, brutal, impulsive–everything the good bourgeois French person was not supposed to be in postrevolutionary France. Embroidering an actual murder case, Zola showed readers how two adulterous lovers could kill a husband, then have their illicit love destroyed by their own guilt and rage. Zola’s portrait of the dark world of Paris street life also captured the socially immobile classes trapped by the revolution’s failure. His was a sophisticated kind of voyeurism–a precursor of later, perhaps less consequential fright fests on such real-life horrors as Lizzie Borden, the Manson gang, and Son of Sam.

Zola’s realistic approach was radical for its time, but his morality tale fits easily into contemporary American sensibilities. It’s too cynical to call Zola the father of the movie of the week, but his work set the stage for today’s search for the psychological and sociological reasons behind criminal acts. Therese Raquin may tell the story of people trapped in 19th-century cages–but I suspect that audiences will recognize their desperation as universal and their destruction as inevitable. I wonder, though, whether audiences will grieve or celebrate the deaths of these irredeemable characters. As my companion commented, this is the story of “unhappy people being unhappy, and when they stop being unhappy, they go mad and kill each other and themselves.” It’s not pretty but it is fascinating, especially in Zola’s tense, lush language.

Zola allows no rest from the pervasive gloom–and neither does Neal Bell in his ambitious, intelligent adaptation. Bell stimulates both our voyeurism and our moral sensibilities, and he honors Zola’s exquisite sense of cultural detail. With the same blunt carnality as in the novel, Therese and Laurent fuck and scheme in the face of her husband’s passivity. From the first scene we know that Therese has been buried alive in a stultifying family; the same repressive, hard-hearted mother-in-law controls the Raquin household; the same guests play dominoes with maddening banality. Ultimately, what this text produces is not sympathy or moral certainty but brute curiosity: the production and Zola’s rich language must propel us through Therese’s search for peace or death.

The unrelenting tension of Greasy Joan & Company’s staging breathes theatrical life into this story of doom, as waves of choices promise the characters relief but bring only increased conflict. Director Shannon Cochran deftly guides her cast through this masterpiece of hindsight: each emotionally rich scene is full of subtexts that reflect the past but never anticipate the future. With the futility of anchored ships, the characters go nowhere despite their efforts. Watching may sound like theatrical torture–yet the play’s horribly unchanging progression from one entrapment to another is very real, if incredibly depressing.

The fascination comes from watching the characters recognize their shifting circumstances, each time arriving at the knowledge that they’re still trapped. Cochran–herself an actor of national reputation–has drawn transcendent performances from her cast. It would have been easy to heighten the script’s melodrama, reaching for progressive hysteria. But then Therese and Laurent would have become tragic heroes rather than helpless, monstrous victims. By eliminating the possibility of liberation, the play becomes a story about consciousness. Therese and Laurent are passionate, sensitive misfits whose ingrown feelings serve only to torture them, making them aware of their wasted lives.

Therese is the most difficult role. Amy Matheny often stands silently, brows knitted, back slightly arched, as if one touch would break her. Imprisoned by the banality of her own life, Therese imagines herself to be a trapped bear; Matheny makes that image physical by bursting into action on a moment’s impulse. She sometimes moves or speaks as if her body were a shell and she lived deep within it, but at other times she assaults Laurent like a beast in rut, more violent than playful. Her stillness can become a little monotonous, but as Therese becomes more desperately controlled by her instincts, Matheny creates an impression of an animal in an invisible cage that goes beyond stereotypes of pacing tigers and twitching bears to reveal a very human beast in considerable pain.

Christian Stolte as Laurent is swallowed up by passion and self-loathing, as Laurent’s initially relaxed and irreverent attitude toward life and morality is turned into cruelty by his obsession with Therese. Mating with her, he takes on her tensions and fears, even mirroring her explosive physical stillness. This process–hastened once they drown her husband–turns his virility into impotent violence. It’s an ugly transformation, and Stolte skillfully shows Laurent’s grief as well as his vigor and cruelty. In this staging’s ironic and painful insight, Laurent sometimes seems the greatest victim in the story, though he’s also the most aggressively immoral murderer.

Most striking, though, is Deanna Dunagan’s masterful performance as Madame, Therese’s mother-in-law. Initially she holds all the power in the household–and her mothering has a brusque brutality that wounds where it might heal. Straight backed and supple before Madame’s second-act stroke, Dunagan strides through the abstract set, her clear performance creating the reality of the story’s millinery shop and tiny rooms. Her character is the foil to Laurent and Therese’s carnality: she forges their cage and ultimately witnesses their destruction. Dunagan is beautiful to watch; when she subtly breaks out of her twisted posture to deliver Madame’s soliloquies from her wheelchair, she manages to convey both the bitterness and wisdom of the character’s entrapment.

Karm Kerwell lightly traces the ineffectual husband, Camille, blending in skillfully with Madame’s friends, who sweep onstage to play ritualistic, rhythmic domino games representing the hypocrisy of respectability. But these bourgeois figures look misplaced on Rick Paul’s metaphorical set, as if they were entering Therese’s chaotic consciousness rather than her cramped rooms. The stairs leading nowhere, the ominous shadows, and the river debris in rippling lines at the edge of the stage make it hard to keep the 19th-century context clear. At times I found myself wondering why Therese didn’t just leave–a modern solution fostered by the universalizing set. In fact, as the dramaturge’s notes make clear, Therese’s poverty and gender trap her as inexorably as her collusion in murder drives her mad. Though Chris J. Johnson’s pervasive, surreal soundscape, Robert G. Smith’s dank, sullen lighting, and Paul’s set show the oppression of Therese’s inner world, they don’t clearly mark the historic restrictions on her behavior.

This is a dangerous weakness, because it goes against Zola’s scientific intent: he saw the murderers as beings determined by their social context and their actions, not by deep psychological flaws. Perhaps Cochran or Bell thought it was necessary to psychologize the setting and universalize the story. But given the strong script and performances, there’s no need to pound themes home in the design. A more naturalistic set might have helped ground the play’s tension in its historical context, giving both actors and audience a cultural backdrop for the violence and making the party scenes more intense by increasing our sense of Therese’s claustrophobia.

Still, Greasy Joan captures much of the grittiness of Zola’s story, offering a sensual, brutal portrait of four adults whose crimes and suffering go far beyond the ordinary immoralities occasioned by lust. Bell’s adaptation gives us a taste of Zola’s compassionate, practical sense of the human capacity for self-destruction; by showing the conflict between animalistic desires and social controls, he explains violence better than do many modern parables of serial killers. And even without the comforting, sentimental redemption of movies of the week, Zola’s melodrama holds a voyeuristic attraction. We can watch these caged human animals with the seeming safety of zoo visitors, caught up in the muscular tension of lust and the impossibility of freedom.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Flak.