Matt Schwader and James Ridge in American Players Theatre's Crime and Punishment.
If you're like me, you're anxiously awaiting July's return of the TV drama Breaking Bad, about a high-school teacher turned meth cooker. Diagnosed with cancer, Walt resorts to crime so he can amass cash to leave for his wife and kids in the event of his death.
While no sane person would rationalize making or dealing a vicious drug like meth, the genius of Breaking Bad is that, at least early on, we feel some sympathy for Walt. Given what he's facing and his sincere desire to provide for his family, what should be reprehensible becomes shaded with gray.
The new-ish stage adaptation of the 1866 Dostoyevsky novel Crime and Punishment, which opened at American Players Theatre Sunday evening, also asks us to consider whether or not crime can ever be justified, or at least mitigated, by external forces. The problem for me was that I was not swayed by the murderer's defense of crime or his eventual redemption.
What I had hoped would be taut and suspenseful did not realize that potential, despite a full-bore performance by Matt Schwader as Raskolnikov that left him visibly exhausted at the show's end. To be fair, though, I seemed to be in the minority as the audience in the intimate Touchstone Theatre gave it a near-instant standing ovation.
Written by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, the drama exists mostly in the mind of Raskolnikov being interrogated, boiling the epic novel down to two hours and three actors (though some play multiple roles).
An impoverished former law student in St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov sports a tattered kerchief, battered boots and grubby clothes too large for his thin, ill frame. In brief vignettes, we see his interactions with various people, including Sonia (Colleen Madden), a religiously devout prostitute with whom he shares a true friendship, and Porfiry (James Ridge), who interrogates Raskolnikov as he investigates a pair of murders.
Raskolnikov is given to spouting bits of his self-made ideology: that an extraordinary man has "an inner right to decide for himself" his course of action, that "all great leaders are, without exception, criminals," that "people with new ideas are extremely few in number."
His ideas meet opposition in Porfiry, who eventually decries "a heart unhinged by theories," and in the Christian faith that Sonia is so eager to share.
Indeed, religion is a prominent and thorny issue threaded through the play, which refers about three times to the Biblical story of Lazarus and includes, in its final scene, an almost Pietà-like configuration of bodies. Raskolnikov can only confess what he's done when he accepts the religious overtures of Sonia and the inspector, an aspect of the play I find discomfiting.
Kenneth Albers, who helmed last season's Waiting for Godot, directs. Like a number of the shows in the intimate Touchstone, it employs a very spare scenic design (too spare, in my opinion): table, chairs, the barest suggestions of a garret. That sparseness and the non-linear, vignette-like structure contribute to a sense of abstraction, and the sound design is a bit heavy-handed at times. I found Noele Stollmack's lighting design more successful at creating psychological tension.
As the play vacillates between ideological pronouncements and extreme displays of emotion, there is something that doesn't fully connect for me. The play's best, most believable, most human scenes emerge in the interactions between Raskolnikov and Sonia; though at first he admonishes her for selling herself, he sees her goodness and she, his. They elicit each other's empathy. Those moments give life to what is too often a distancing production.