'Through a Glass Darkly': Theater Review

Through a Glass Darkly - Theater Still: Carey Mulligan, Ben Rosenfield - 2011
Ari Mintz
Carey Mulligan's mesmerizing performance makes this strikingly staged but effortful Bergman adaptation more satisfying than it otherwise might have been.

Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning 1961 film -- about a family that has gathered for its annual summer holiday, in the hope of mending frayed bonds -- has been adapted for the stage.

NEW YORK – Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning 1961 film, Through a Glass Darkly, was already a Strindbergian chamber drama on the screen. With four characters in a single setting and action unfolding over 24 hours, it was a natural fit for stage adaptation, at least physically. The result is dour and short on insight, but it provides a powerful role for the tremendously talented Carey Mulligan to harness her dueling forces of strength and fragility.

Mulligan's last appearance on a New York stage was on Broadway in the superb 2008 revival of The Seagull, opposite Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard. That was before her breakout performance in An Education, which has led to steady screen work. It's admirable to see this young actor continuing to test herself, and stepping into Harriet Andersson's shoes as one of Bergman's psychologically anguished heroines certainly qualifies as a challenge.

The material was adapted by Jenny Worton, an artistic associate at London's Almeida Theatre, where the play premiered last summer in a different production to mixed critical response.

Director David Leveaux has done a fine job summoning the stark emotional terrain of the film. There's no substituting the atmospheric effect of landscape in the work of Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist. But set designer Takeshi Kata and lighting chief David Weiner have crafted an austerely beautiful canvas on which to plot the descent into madness of Karin (Mulligan).

While critic Stanley Kauffmann described the film as "a study in varying shades of gray," Kata's bleached-wood set expands that color palette to include murky yellows and washed-out blues. Weiner's lighting is soft and shadowy, acquiring harder edges as the drama darkens.

The setting is a remote Baltic island on which a family has gathered for its annual summer holiday, in the hope of mending frayed bonds. Fresh from a stint in a psych hospital, schizophrenic Karin proclaims it "the most wonderful place on Earth," insisting, "Everything will be perfect this holiday." Yeah, right.

Her widowed father, David (Chris Sarandon), is a successful but second-rate novelist whose convivial demonstrations of warmth can't mask his cold self-involvement. Her sexually confused 16-year-old brother, Max (Ben Rosenfield), grasps for his father's approval by aping the role of tortured artist, writing plays that David criticizes without even reading them. And her loving but ineffectual husband, Martin (Jason Butler Harner), is a doctor who knows his optimism concerning Karin's condition is unfounded.

While Karin strives to be the knot that holds the family together, her unraveling begins when she reads David's diary. His account of her late mother's illness mirrors her own state. Yet David confesses, with shocking candor, that first-hand observation of the spiral of madness might provide the inspirational spark his books are lacking.

At that point, the voices in Karin's head start growing louder, drawing her to a wall in the attic. Behind it she believes is a way station between worlds, where people await God's arrival and look to her to make it happen.

There are four compelling performances here. In the Chekhovian role of the writer incapable of fully experiencing life or feeling real emotion, Sarandon's characterization is a somber study of guilt without shame. Harner's Martin is wrenching in his helplessness, firing up in a terrific scene in which he rips into David and points up parallels in the writer's personal and artistic failings. Newcomer Rosenfield is particularly strong, pummeled internally by the raw confusion of adolescence and the pain of non-communication.

But the play belongs to Mulligan's Karin. Rarely still for long, she goes from bursts of manic activity to violent mood swings to catatonic spells and moments of exalted serenity. The performance is volatile yet restrained, poignantly underscored by a hopeless yearning to recreate the perfect family that exists only in her head. She weighs the damage she is causing to the people who love her against the spiritual release she intuits beyond the attic wall, and when her choice fails her, a crushing look of defeat clouds Mulligan's face.

Worton stumbles in the climactic scene, however. In place of Andersson's shattered account in the film of seeing God as a stony-faced spider, the writer keeps plugging away at familiar dysfunctional-family notes. Bergman's film was part of a trilogy about loss of faith, but in this context, Karin's religious hysteria remains merely a vestige of her madness, stripped of metaphysical meaning. The attempt to explain away her illness as a hereditary condition fed by the family's history of denial and withheld affection seems banal.

If the bleak play is more affecting in individual scenes than as a whole it's no fault of the production. But even when the writing lets her down, Mulligan's haunting performance is riveting.

Venue: New York Theatre Workshop
Cast: Jason Butler Harner, Carey Mulligan, Ben Rosenfield, Chris Sarandon
Playwright: Jenny Worton, adapted from the film by Ingmar Bergman
Director: David Leveaux
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Music/sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, in association with Andrew Higgie, Garry McQuinn, Debbie Bisno, Bruce Davey