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Therese Raquin

                                       by Deirdre Donovan


Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin comes to life on Broadway with a new adaptation by playwright Helen Edmundson.   Featuring Keira Knightley, Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan, and Judith Light, and directed by Evan Cabnet, this show may well be the spookiest new production of the season.


Before parsing this, and that aspect, of the current show, here are some of its various incarnations in film, radio, TV, and stage adaptations over the years.  The author himself, in fact, penned a stage version of his literary work, first produced in 1873, and then a decade later, in London.  In both the 20th and 21th century, the novel would surface again in various guises, including two silent European film adaptations, BBC TV and radio productions, and a smattering of stagings across the globe.  New York theatergoers might even recall the 2001 Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not, based on Zola’s novel, with the amazing Norbert Leo Butz playing Camille and his ghost (Butz snagged a well-deserved Tony-nomination for this performance.)  And, oh yes.  Therese Raquin had a straight stage adaptation on Broadway at the Biltmore in 1945.


Keira Knightley and Judith Light in a scene from “Thérèse Raquin” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Keira Knightley and Judith Light

Returning to Edmundson’s new version, it comes with its own stamp. Edmundson keeps the novel’s main themes blazing--adultery, murder, guilt, and revenge—and retains the narrative’s arc.  Here’s the plot:  Therese Raquin  (Knightley) is the orphan daughter of a sea captain father and a North African mother who died when she was very young.  Unable to care for Therese, the father placed her in the care of his sister Madame Raquin (Light), a village shopkeeper, who already had a son Camille (Ebert), approximately the same age as Therese.  When Therese turns 21, she is coerced by Madame Raquin into marrying her self-centered son Camille.  Locked into a loveless marriage with her first cousin and still living under Madame Raquin’s roof, Therese becomes increasingly desperate.  Her husband Camille pays scant attention to her emotional needs and preoccupies himself with relocating the family from a sleepy village on the Seine to Paris, where job prospects would likely be better for him.  They move to the city, and the two women establish themselves as haberdashers and Camille gains employment at a train station.


Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley
                                                                                                           Photos by Joan Marcus


 Unexpectedly, Camille meets a childhood friend Laurent (Ryan) at work and brings him home one evening for dinner.  Sparks ignite between Laurent and Therese—and their passion leads to an adulterous affair.  Laurent and Therese soon hatch a plan to murder Camille during a recreational boat ride.  They carry it out—and cover up the crime to the public, explaining Camille’s tragic death as a “boating accident.”  Time passes—and Therese and Laurent marry.  But plagued by guilt, they have recurring hallucinations of Camille’s ghost that unsettles them and eventually drives them mad.  And let’s not forget Madame Raquin!  In shock over Camille’s sudden death, she suffered a paralyzing stroke that left her mute and confined to a wheelchair.   In spite of her frail condition, however, she serves as the main catalyst in the denouement of this Hitchcock-esque tale.


This Therese Raquin demands your total attention from the getgo.  But with Beowulf Boritt’s stunning sets, you won’t want to pull your eyes away from the stage for very long at Studio 54.  Boritt has created multiple sets that adapt to the dramatic needs of each scene, including the grisly murder scene (Boritt simulates a river front and a full-sized row boat that carries Therese, Laurent, and the doomed Camille across real watery depths.)   In collaboration with Keith Parham’s shadowy lighting, this show has visual eloquence.  Add in Jane Greenwood’s period costumes, and Josh Schimidt’s rich sound effects, and you have the grit and texture of the original melodrama.


The acting mostly measures up.  Knightley, in her Broadway debut in the eponymous role, shows that she can traverse the boards with confidence.  Knightley never overacts here but has a real presence on stage.  Ebert, as the self-important Camille, rightly projects himself as a man of the world as he climbs his career ladder (and woefully neglects his wife).  Ryan couldn’t be better cast as Laurent.  In Act 1, his Laurent has a rakish air, which is gradually erased in Act 2 as guilt overtakes his character.  And Light, almost unrecognizable at first as the elderly Madame Raquin, practically steals the show at play’s end as a stroke victim who has a sharp ear for the truth and whose penetrating eyes speak volumes.


Okay, the play does run a tad too long, clocking in at 2 ½ hours, and would greatly benefit from trimming (or cutting) a few scenes.  Yes, Cabnet makes a good attempt at evenly pacing the production.  But there are sags in the action in both acts, which put a brake on the show’s general momentum.


That said, this Therese Raquin has much going for it.  From its spine-tingling suspense, to its quirky psychological twists, to its breath-taking ending, this show (even with its flaws) is haunting.


Through January 3rd.

At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, Manhattan.

For more information, phone 212-719-1300 or visit

Running time:  2 hours; 30 minutes with an intermission.