Credit: Joan Marcus

Genre: Play, Drama; Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Ryan, Judith Light, Gabriel Ebert; Director: Evan Cabnet; Author: Helen Edmundson; Opening Date: Oct. 29, 2015

Keira Knightley in period garb is such a familiar sight in contemporary pop culture that it’s practically a visual cliché in itself. With her winning performances as Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean series and as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, we’ve become so accustomed to seeing her as the radiant focal point in period love triangles that it’s no wonder Knightley has been offered the titular role in Thérèse Raquin multiple times in her career.

But Thérése is somewhat of a departure from the popular cinematic image of Knightley, and not only because it’s the actress’ Broadway debut. In Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1867 novel, Knightley doesn’t play a flushed-cheek heroine sprinting across moors, but rather a haunted-eyed young woman, parentless since childhood, who’s forced to marry her sickly cousin Camille (Gabriel Ebert) by her controlling and overbearing aunt, Madame Raquin (Judith Light). The union is bleak from the beginning, Camille being an effete brat who sees his wife as a second mother whose breasts he’s allowed to touch, and Thérèse resigned to going through the motions of a stifling, sexless marriage miserably but silently. It’s while her character is largely wordless that Knightley brings Thérèse’s inner life most vividly to the forefront with her unsettlingly intense gaze and sharp-angled physicality — her passion can’t be fully restrained by her buttoned-up, Brontë-sister exterior.

That passion is finally uncorked when Camille introduces his friend Laurent (Matt Ryan) to the family. Laurent, a dubiously talented artist who’d be a full-time man of leisure if his father hadn’t cut off his allowance, wins the Raquins over with his empty sort of charisma, which, to put it mildly, rocks Thérèse’s world. After their first night together, Thérèse proclaims, “There’s blood in my veins… Thank God there is still some blood in my veins!” It’s thanks to the casting of Ryan, who’s great in the seductive rake role, that we understand Thérèse’s instant attraction to him, even as the affair morphs into something sick and dangerous. Thérèse, who grows to loathe Camille more and more, conspires with Laurent to murder him and make it look like an accident. They’re successful, and they manage to get married with Madame Raquin’s full blessing, but the guilt of the murder and Madame Raquin’s overwhelming grief poison their relationship and drive them to madness, culminating in a dark ending that feels like a perverse twist on Romeo & Juliet.

It’s an unrelentingly dark story, but while it clocks in at two-and-a-half hours, the production is surprisingly fleet and contemporary in feeling, even without any obvious anachronisms in Edmundson’s script. Light and Ebert bring gracefully comic touches to their characters, and the sets by Beowulf Boritt, which range from minimalist backdrops to French apartments that descends from the rafters to an actual body of water that opens up through the boards, will keep audiences captivated — every scene change bears a detail that’s either subtle or dazzling.

Still, Knightley is the real draw, and even though her fame brought on a bit of a sideshow during the first preview earlier this month — a fan interrupted the show to propose marriage and throw a bouquet of flowers onto the stage — her raw-nerved performance proves that with or without period attire, she’s an actress who can surprise us. A–