Prisoner of Zola

Emile Zola's 134-year-old novel Thrse Raquin is suddenly one of the hottest literary properties in the land. A TV movie is in the works, a film version (starring Kate Winslet) is in production, and a musical version (featuring the sound stylings of Mr. Harry Connick Jr., ladies and gentlemen) is in development. And 10 years ago, the play was adapted to the stage by Neal Bell, an adaptation currently on the boards at the Chance Theater in Anaheim.

Therese Raquin is attractive for several reasons. For one, it's a period piece featuring a female character with whom modern audiences can instantly identify: Therese, a young woman who feels trapped in a loveless marriage and who must choose to sacrifice all for the promise of a vital union.

But beneath the surface of Zola's novel is an intellectual energy that propelled much of this literary pioneer's work and that, more than anything else, might account for Therese Raquin's popularity among the cultural intelligentsia that dominates Broadway and Hollywood. The man was king of the liberals, particularly in his fervent belief that society and personal character are shaped through external forces as well as by personal choices—child abuse creates a serial killer, praise creates well-adjusted adults, poverty creates a crack addict, and Western imperialism creates a suicide bomber.

Take Therese herself. In 1867, readers didn't encounter fictionalized women like her. She's a beautiful, sensitive young woman mired in depression and morbidity because a bullying aunt has forced her into a loveless marriage with a sickly cousin. Trapped in a tedious life and a sterile marriage, she seems to take her only pleasure in talking shit about the stuffed shirts who come over for dinner parties and cackling in wicked glee when she hears twisted tales of cruelty.

The arrival of Laurent, a passionate teamster, gives Therese a way out of this stagnant life. But in order to exit, she has to walk out over a corpse or three.

It's good, juicy stuff—adultery, murder, jealousy and sexual liberation. But nowhere, at least in Neal Bell's stage adaptation, does Therese ever take responsibility for anything. She despises her sickly husband and hates her aunt—in short, she blames everybody but herself for her situation. In modern terms, she suffers from the pathology of victimization, and I was heartily sick of her long before play's end.

Whether Zola or Bell intended Therese to evoke that reaction, I'm not sure. But that's definitely the impression I got from Darryl B. Hovis' current production, which doesn't work too hard on making Therese more sympathetic. He directs the quite skilled Liz Simmons toward a perennially pouty look; this woman has awakened each day sucking on a lemon. The fact that Simmons manages to inject any vitality into the character is a testament to her talent, but the rest of the production is pretty bloodless.

The production drags throughout, an unfortunate fact not helped by Hovis' inability to compensate for the play's most serious built-in obstacle: the seemingly never-ending series of vignettes that begins the play, all of which end with blackouts. Blackouts always kill momentum and have to be used skillfully in order not to break the audience's attention. Hovis' clunky use of the darkness prevents the engine of this play from ever turning over. Lackluster performances among the supporting cast don't help matters, although Halim Jabbour's Laurent contributes the requisite passion.

In essence, rather than showing us a woman who sacrifices all for passion, who desperately yearns for a real life and will do anything to get it, Therese Raquin serves up little more than a cold and spiteful bitch who refuses to take any responsibility for the misery she's mired in.

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with victimization. We're all victims, great and small. But it's the way we deal with it that's key. And maybe it's time for works that help create a shift in perception, art that helps us see we're not just slaves to our misery: we are also its sole governor. And if we want genuine liberation, we can free ourselves at any time we choose.

Therese Raquin at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 821-6903. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Oct. 28. $13-$15.


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