08/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stage Door: Thérèse Raquin

Emile Zola's racy 1867 novel, Thérèse Raquin, a scandalous tale of sex and sin secured its young author a notoriety that would follow him throughout his life. The book was part of a new literary trend - naturalism - that analyzed passions and temperaments, and Zola was a master of the genre.

Like Edgar Allan Poe's Telltale Heart published two decades earlier, Thérèse Raquin examines the nature of crime and guilt. So compelling is the story, it was remade into subsequent plays and films for the next 100 years.

Its latest incarnation, a neatly staged performance at the Atlantic Stage 2, serves Zola's themes well.

Thérèse Raquin tells the story of a vibrant young woman, half-French, half-Algerian, unhappily married to her first cousin by her overbearing aunt (Helen-Jean Arthur). Her husband, Camille (Willie Orbison), is sickly and clingy, and Therese (Lily Balsen) is trapped in a loveless marriage. When the trio moves into a dingy, claustrophobic shop in Paris, their fate is sealed.

Bored by her husband and crushed by the stifling social mores of her aunt, Thérèse has an affair with one of Camille's friends, Laurent (Scott Janes). They are bound by intense erotic desire; sex is her only release. Their passion blots out all reason. Eager to be together, they see only one, murderous option.

Thanks to Jim Petosa's sharp direction, coupled with Mark Evancho's minimalist sets and Nicholas Houfek's eerie lighting, this thoughtful production successfully captures the hallucinatory world of guilt; the aftermath is staged to great effect. Haunted by visions, the lovers are as obsessed by death as they once were by sex. Under the accusing gaze of Camille's mother, perfectly played by Arthur, Zola's pre-Freudian tale dissects a bad conscience with artistic flourish.

The leads - Janes and Balsen - have real chemistry, and they present a sympathetic portrait of lovers pushed to the brink. Despite its strengths, the play would be well-served by trimming 10 minutes out of the second act. Still, this incarnation of Thérèse Raquin is a powerful tale of love gone wrong. It understands the joy and heartache of desire, as well as the terror of committing the ultimate taboo.