The Aurora Theater Company in downtown Berkeley has, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, elected to end its 11th season with Emile Zola’s 19th-century warhorse, “Therese Raquin.” Possibly they’re presenting it because it gives their season subscribers a remarkably well-rounded set of plays for the year, running from farce to melodrama with several stops in between. Or maybe it’s just because it provides the actors with a particularly juicy set of scenes in which to show their chops. And these guys do, no question about that.
The truth is they just don’t make plays like “Therese Raquin” any more. They can’t. Times have changed way too much. For obvious reasons, Zola’s then-scandalous novel about adultery and murder made a big splash in the France of 1867 and became the basis for the only successful play he ever wrote. (About that time, over in England, the more sober Brits had to make do with Charles Dickens’ relatively bland “Great Expectations.”) But for a modern audience, in an era in which marriage is too frequently merely the forerunner to divorce, the substance of this plot is sadly undercut. We don’t have to kill our husbands anymore: divorce works quite efficiently (and is far less messy).
Be that as it may, Aurora has cast the drama with strong actors who manage to extract the most out of their fairly lively collection of characters. It isn’t their fault that the first act sags under the load of too much background exposition. Things pick up in the second act, however. In fact, Joy Carlin’s extraordinary performance as mother-in-law Madame Raquin might be enough to justify the price of a ticket. In the second act, she manages to get more drama out of sitting paralyzed in her chair, unmoving except for her eyes, than most actors could get if they stripped naked and ran screaming through the audience. It is an incredible piece of acting.
The adulterous pair, Therese and Laurent, are more than effectively played by Stephanie Gularte and Mark Eliott Wilson. They have the opportunity of their performing lifetimes to pull out every stop in their repertoires. As Therese, Gularte moves from near immobilized depression, through lust and guilt, to rage. The only complaint about Wilson’s performance is that he does such a terrific job of seeming to be a nice-guy best friend to Therese’s idiotic husband, Camille (Jonathan Rys Williams), that it’s a leap to buy into the idea that he’s double-crossing the same jerk. However, he does get the point across with real zest.
Williams combines with Zola, by the way, to turn the husband into a character who just might create an argument for justifiable homicide.
The supporting actors are equally strong, presenting well-developed, almost Dickensian, types. This is one production where there can be few complaints: acting, direction, staging, everything is fine. The only real question is, why?
The curious thing is that the play seems to retain its popularity, with surprisingly frequent modern productions as well as films. An opera was based on it about two years ago and, about the same time, Kate Winslet was trying pretty hard to get a version off the ground in which she and Judi Dench would star.
Maybe there’s a public need for a regular dose of melodrama. After all, soap operas are still going strong. Or maybe it’s just that the acting community yearns for a chance to play the entire range of passions in the grand old manner. Whatever ... Here it is.