Sex, deceit and death -- they've been the makings of good entertainment for lo these many centuries. So some new twists are needed for Thérèse Raquin and Quantum Theatre, which has always found novel places to stage its daring plays. This time it's in the long-unused swimming pool of the very first library that Andrew Carnegie funded, in 1889.
Thus, although the setting isn't much younger than Émile Zola's 1867 novel about one of fiction's original desperate housewives, it threatens to drown Nicholas Wright's slender 2006 adaptation with its own visual metaphors (and splash reviewers with too many pun possibilities). The sense of decay is underlined by Tony Ferrieri's clever set design, which provides handy compartments for props as well as ingress and egress. The "fourth wall" is somewhat vertiginous; the audience sits above the pool and literally looks down upon the action.
But while these petit bourgeois types are indeed confined -- an important theme -- the actual size of the space negates the sense of claustrophobia. And the audience is simply too far away to read faces, defeating an especially crucial plot point. It's very frustrating not to be able to see the eyes of Mary Rawson (as the paralyzed mother-in-law) while Robin Walsh and Hugo Armstrong (as the guilty ex-lovers) verbally slash each other over her inert body.
The director is Rodger Henderson.The entire cast is excellent, particularly the three principals, but also Mark D. Staley as the inconvenient husband; Joe Warik as his obsessive boss; David Cabot as a pompous ex-policeman; and Gayle Pazerski as his pert niece. Visually, the play is a stunner: beauty being overtaken by rot, with Ferrieri's set, Susan O'Neill's costumes and Scott Nelson's lighting. Elizabeth Atkinson's sound design adds to the water theme. It's not a fresh, cleansing water, but murky pools of who-knows-what-hidden-secrets-and-horrors.
The point of Thérèse Raquin is not a mere love-triangle thriller. Its characters are mostly ordinary people, happy in their banality. The passion inside the eponymous heroine just has no place in this world of bourgeois niceness, and certainly no legitimate outlet. It can lead only to doom, for her and for others. Ah, but I wish the play had provided more glimpses of that passion and its heat. What we get is so cold. There's so much more to the story that is barely suggested, and never realized.
Thérèse Raquin continues through Oct. 14. Quantum Theatre at the Braddock Carnegie Library, 419 Library St., Braddock, 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org