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Through a Glass Darkly

Carey Mulligan gives a stunning performance as a mentally ill woman in this stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning film.

Carey Mulligan and Jason Butler Harner
in Through a Glass Darkly
(© Ari Mintz)
The extraordinary British actress Carey Mulligan once again shows her capacity for fully inhabiting a character as Karin, the mentally ill young woman at the center of Through a Glass Darkly, Jenny Worton's stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning film, now being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company at New York Theatre Workshop. And while the piece is ultimately devastating, there are some dangerously slow-going moments in the first half of David Leveaux's production.

The 90-minute work takes place at the Swedish island vacation home (gorgeously realized by set designer Takeshi Kata) where Karin's family -- her father, David (Chris Sarandon), her 16-year-old brother Max (Ben Rosenfield), and her somewhat older husband, Martin (Jason Butler Harner), a doctor -- have come together for a holiday.

Karin is only a month out of the hospital, but appears to be in good health. She has not seen David -- a semi-successful author -- for some time, as he went off to Switzerland to complete his latest novel; but her hopes for a happy family reunion are soon dashed.

For too much of the piece, Karin's condition -- which turns out to be some form of schizophrenia -- is mostly talked about rather than fully seen, and the work feels like a typical study of dysfunctional family dynamics: David is completely self-absorbed and thoughtless; Max is all pubescent nerves and mood swings; and Karin tries to make things better (even though she seems to have serious boundary issues). It often feels like a variation on O'Neill or Chekhov -- and Wooten's dialogue lacks the needed poetry to transform the cliches.

Only when Karin's illness comes into full focus -- and her delusions start to result in some terrifying actions -- does the piece become riveting. As a reaction to her condition, every character's layers are peeled away to reveal some surprising truths, and Karin's actions have some unexpected consequences. Still, even in its finest moments, Bergman's larger philosophical questions about God and the nature of certainty, embodied in Karin's visions, come in a distant second to the familial drama.

Leveaux's slightly sloggy pacing of the earlier scenes is a possibly deliberate if not always felicitous choice; most audience members will likely be checking their watches more than once waiting for something major to happen. However, when he creates a sense of much-needed urgency during the final sections, it's impossible to look away from the stage.

Charged with the admittedly difficult task of embodying Karin -- a child-woman whose mental state changes with the frequency of a light being turned on and off -- Mulligan is simply stunning. Her face appears to register every single emotion and thought in Karin's head; her body language is beautifully specific in each scene; and she consistently forges a separate, completely true connection with each of the men in her life. There's also a fearlessness and confidence in her choices that is truly praiseworthy.

Sarandon has perhaps never been better than as David, whose cold demeanor practically destroys his children -- and who we come to realize fully comprehends his shortcomings, but lacks the power to change them. The always reliable Harner inhabits Martin, who originally appears almost saintly but is slowly revealed to have hidden depths of anger and frustration. As the sexually tormented and somewhat precocious Max, Rosenfield nails the character's teenaged angst, although he does overplay a couple of crucial moments.


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