- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2000

This summer may have been cool and rainy, but things are hotter than Georgia asphalt over at Olney's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, where actors Valerie Leonard and Christopher Lane appear in Neal Bell's savage adaptation of Emile Zola's classic 19th-century novel "Therese Raquin."

Forget "Sex and the City." These two generate more guilt-ridden, nasty sexual heat than anything HBO could produce — and in the sylvan suburb of Olney, no less. Of course, they have Zola's passionate, dramatic novel with which to work.

Zola founded the naturalist movement in literature, which was part scientific observation, part fatalism and largely a sociological experiment in what happens when you put hotblooded people together in a specific, closely hemmed situation. For all the precision and research that went into Zola's novels, they roil with sordid appetites, both suppressed and unleashed.

That is evident in "Therese Raquin." In Mr. Bell's adaptation, cunningly directed by Jim Petosa, the naturalism collides with expressionism. Mr. Bell arranges the action into a series of tightly coiled, tersely poetic scenes that both temper and emphasize the novel's grit and eroticism. Mr. Petosa has contained the play within gilt picture frames in various stages of decay, shafts of dirty gold light and the effective use of a scrim that reveals more than it shadows.

Debra K. Sivigny's costumes are in a dark blue and gray palette to reflect the interior landscape of the characters. This approach is alarmingly effective, for if Zola's unbridled volcanism were presented full-bore, the audience probably would lapse into giggles at the sheer melodrama of it all. Instead, we get caught up in a psychological thriller that hurtles us willy-nilly toward its inevitable conclusion while keeping us within its taut grip.

The master manipulator in "Therese Raquin" is the title character, a woman who reacts against society's repression by indulging in all manner of sexual depravity. The more society tightens its constraints, the more rapacious and engulfed Therese becomes.

In the beginning, we see Therese (Miss Leonard) sitting in almost indescribable boredom in the countryside with her dully pleasant aunt, Madame (Helen-Jean Arthur). Her young life is already laid out for her: marriage to her sickly, blandly congenial cousin, Camille (Daryl Lozupone), and biding her time with auntie.

To escape her plight, Therese affects peculiarities. She claims to be able to hear the river speaking and has explosive flights of fancy in her mind. Things pick up a bit when Camille moves the family to Paris. But since Camille and his mother have no poetry in their souls, life quickly settles into a routine so smothering you feel as though everyone is coated with tree pollen.

The mercurial Therese soon gets a reputation among their friends for being haughty in her misery. Then Camille's friend Laurent (Mr. Lane) strides in, a hyper-masculine artist who is almost a cliche of a studly man confident of his power over women and men. He's like a good fire, Camille observes, someone you can warm your hands in front of.

Laurent soon is warming his hands on Therese, and they embark on a mad, grasping affair that is more like two persons pulling each other away from the edge of a cliff than a romantic interlude. Their sessions are not for the faint of heart — they are ferocious and animalistic, and usually end with Therese sobbing and saying such things as, "You dug me up too late."

In the throes of their passion, they decide that Camille is standing in the way of their happiness. Destroying him will be the answer to their prayers, they reason. But after the deed is done, the lovers are plunged into torture far beyond anything they ever imagined. Instead of freedom, they experience guilt so crushing it seems to eradicate their skin — the only thing that kept them together.

Their life together becomes a prison. They are ghosts floating through the rooms where once they so raucously kissed and embraced. Laurent becomes a wife beater; Therese a drunken slattern who indulges in revisionist history.

When the two finally succumb to death, in the presence of the stroke-riddled Madame, there is a beautiful sense of completion. Therese, who has been the walking dead most of her life, finally gets what she always wanted.

The production by the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts is strong, feverish and disturbing. The atmospheric staging and the ominous music contribute to this, but the strength ultimately lies in the acting. Miss Leonard is a feral, stalking creature who claims she is half-dead but realizes the fleshy part of her is insistently, gnawingly alive.

Mr. Lane arrives on the scene like a gigolo from central casting, but he draws you in with subtle, skilled touches that let you know that once Laurent meets Therese he begins to lose control. His is a primal, physical performance that also displays intelligence.

Miss Arthur also is quite affecting as the diligently pleasant Madame, giving you the impression that she has steel beneath her benign contentment. The same goes for Mr. Lozupone's Camille. You can sympathize with Therese for marrying such a nerd, but at the same time you are touched by the glimpses of Camille's sensitive side, as seen in his trips to the zoo and his pathetic attempts to make his wife happy.

To say "Therese Raquin" is an invective against adultery would be simplistic and not do justice to Zola's artistry. It is more a passionate study of what happens when society squelches the spirit and the soul-dead decide to rouse themselves.WHAT: "Therese Raquin"WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts (www.olneytheatre.org), 2001 Olney-Sandy Springs Road, OlneyWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. tomorrow and Sept. 9, 10, 16, 17, 23 and 24. Through Sept. 24.TICKETS: $15 to $32PHONE: 301/924-3400

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