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“I am sputtering out,” moans the title character of Thérèse Raquin as she surveys the suffocating apartment she shares with a husband who smells like a colicky child and a mother-in-law whose idea of a bracing evening’s entertainment is a brisk game of dominoes.

“There’s nearly nothing left of me but a burnt wick and a wisp of smoke,” Thérèse adds with a wan little wave. “I’m already dead, and this is hell.”

All that before the plot even kicks in.

Thérèse (Valerie Leonard), as it happens, hasn’t even glimpsed hell yet. But she will. The Paris apartment that she compares in these early scenes to a grave (“It’s narrow, and cold, and damp, and smells of freshly turned earth”) will soon become a hothouse of adultery, where boredom will give way to lust, lust to murder, and murder to remorse before anyone quite has a chance to pause for breath.

And all of this will happen, in Neal Bell’s passionate adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel, in vivid bursts of poetic imagery. “My bed is a ship—the sheets are sails,” says Thérèse when her affair appears to have the wind at its back. And because director Jim Petosa has been sending her to the very point of the Olney Theatre’s angular stage all evening, having her listen longingly to the rushing river in a posture not unlike that of a galleon’s figurehead, you know precisely what she means.

Despite ennui that borders on desperation, Thérèse does not venture willingly into the affair that will spell her ruin. It takes her only an instant to size up the danger being presented when her husband, Camille (Daryl Lozupone), brings a co-worker named Laurent (Christopher Lane) home for an evening of dominoes. Laurent is not like the other men in their social circle. He’s abrupt, alive, warm-blooded, and charismatic, and Thérèse is so alarmed by the flush he brings to her cheeks that she immediately begs Camille to send the interloper away.

Her trusting, sickly husband, alas, is also in need of warmth. “I like a good fire,” he tells Thérèse, “and he strikes me that way: someone I can warm my hands in front of.”

So Laurent becomes a presence in their apartment, spending his afternoons painting Camille’s portrait, surreptitiously cozying up to Thérèse in a series of breathless encounters behind half-closed doors. The script telescopes months of furtive passion into a few Kama Sutra-ish couplings, which Petosa’s staging has the good sense to send up even as it’s giving them an erotic charge. The sight of Thérèse panting amorously in her corset, straddling chairs, being pawed from behind, and even being serviced beneath her skirts as her mother-in-law serves tea offers an irresistible overview of 19th-century morality. Hers is the sort of willfully proper society where an orgasmic gasp is as apt to prompt a solicitous query (“Is the cat coughing up a fur ball?”) as suspicion.

Still, partial liberation from rigid social strictures feels worse than no liberation at all to Thérèse and Laurent. Eaten up by guilt over deceiving Camille, they decide to eliminate him, and they actually manage to get away with murder—only to find that the passion that so consumed them before his death is quickly replaced by a consuming remorse.

Thérèse Raquin caused an international scandal when it was published as a novel in 1867, with critics terming its blunt, unprettified representation of infidelity, murder, and madness “repulsive.” Zola responded in the preface to a second edition, which was then rushed into print—nothing boosts book sales like a good scandal—that he had written a study of “temperaments and not characters…people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn into each action of their lives by the inexorable laws of their physical nature.”

Whether he actually believed those words or was just issuing a call to arms for the naturalist movement, of which he was a founding father, Zola ended up winning the war. Realism prevailed over Victorian artificiality, and Thérèse Raquin, with its gritty, straightforward portrayal of sex-driven characters, is now seen as a seminal work.

Bell’s approach in adapting the novel some 130 years later was to distill from Zola’s quasi-epic narrative a series of tight, pointedly poetic scenes. The stage characters speak cryptically, but with phrasing that opens up whole worlds of emotion, as in the line “When I was a girl, a summer night was like an open wound.”

Petosa’s spare staging takes its cues from Bell’s script, matching the playwright’s haikulike phrasing with what amounts to a visual poem—simple, stark images succeeding each other as characters tryst in a setting James Kronzer has conceived as a trio of huge, crumbling Victorian picture frames. Debra K. Sivigny’s paint-spattered costumes (her inspiration was apparently an impressionist canvas) come across as a gimmick, but Daniel MacLean Wagner’s eerie lighting, which seems filtered through lace, and David McKeever’s suspense-flick orchestral flourishes lend the evening a deeply cinematic quality.

For all the clever design work, however, the production chiefly belongs to the actors, with Leonard and Lane expertly detailing the lovers’ descent from overheated sensuality to sensual overload. The risks these two performers face in putting across emotional material that might easily take a turn toward soap opera are considerable, but they sidestep them neatly. In the second act, when even the slightest touch seems to scald both lovers, their yearning is almost painful. Also sharp is Helen Jean Arthur, who is at first fiercely comic and then poignant as the overprotective mom who comes along with Thérèse’s marriage, though she and Lozupone’s persuasively milquetoast Camille don’t establish much in the way of mother-son rapport.

Of the capable supporting cast, the standout is Kathleen Coons, who plays primly conventional Victorian maidenhood with a degree of offhandedness that prompts guffaws without undercutting a tale that takes its sordidness very seriously. Olney’s opening-night audience—for all its distance from Victorian sensibilities—seemed downright startled to be laughing as sexual writhings gave way to death rattles. And even more startled to be choked up when the laughter stopped. CP