Following a recent trend of adaptations of Ingmar Bergman films for the stage (Trevor Nunn’s take on Scenes from a Marriage in the UK in 2008, Yale Rep’s take on Autumn Sonata this season just past), Atlantic Theater Company is currently presenting the stage adaptation of the Swedish auteur’s 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly – a dark, psychological exploration of madness and artistic creation by the sea.
Presumably the reason for the Atlantic’s interest in the piece is their ability to attract up-and-coming British film actress Carey Mulligan in the central role of Karin, under the direction of David Leveaux, whose many stage successes include the current revival of Arcadia, the last decade’s Fiddler on the Roof revival with Alfred Molina, and Roundabout Theatre Company’s Nine with Antonio Banderas.
It’s with pleasure that I report that Mulligan, truly the heart of the production, shines in a difficult role and provides ample reason to experience this visually appealing production which otherwise provides more stimulation to the synapses than to the gut, trading in lofty intellectualisms at the expense of emotional exploration. Her limber physicality lends the production a raw, enervating center that it sorely, desperately needs.
The play, which follows the film’s plot, depicts Karin’s return to her family’s Swedish island home after spending a stretch of time in a mental institution. She’s joined there by her slightly older physician husband Martin, her hack novelist father David, and her brother Max, a lonely soul who’s taken up playwriting in an effort to emulate his father’s creative efforts. As the family’s old resentments resurface and Karin’s father reveals the extent of his cold creative impetuses, Karin’s madness worsens until it reaches its breaking point.
Having not seen the source film, Jenny Worton’s adaptation stands on its own as a piece of fine writing for the most part, maintaining an appropriately icy Bergmanesque sense of claustrophobia with an ear, nevertheless, to the nature of the story’s stage presentation.
Through the piece engages the mind for the the most part throughout, however, it also carries a certain stony, isolating quality that may distance those who prefer a story that engages less with the mind and more with the heart and soul of its characters.
This, more than likely, is a fault that lies less with Worton’s craftsmanship and more with the inherently cold nature of Bergman’s world view, which seems to view humankind with an understanding of our complex emotions, no doubt, but with a lens that interprets their joys and sorrows with an eye to their psychological natures.
Physically, Leveaux’s production impresses. Takeshi Kata’s largely open set differentiates smartly between the play’s interior and exterior settings, outlining Karin’s room in fluorescents and cordoning off the imagined room of her madness with a sheer curtain that eventually, climactically, falls. David Van Tieghem’s original music is similarly affecting, and David Weiner’s lighting design allows the proceedings to swell and compress with impressive focus.
Besides for Mulligan, the young actor Ben Rosenfield shines as Max, and Jason Butler Harner and Chris Sarandon more than hold their own as Martin and David respectively. Sarandon, whose performance occasionally veers toward melodrama, nevertheless manages to craft a chillingly villainous performance solely from the quality of his words, with no necessity for violence or physical force – no small achievement. As the play nears its close, it’s his reversal toward goodness and Karin’s calmly centered (almost sane) experience of madness that gives the piece its center and makes this production worth seeing.