Where Ingmar Bergman found truths in the intimate camera close-ups of his 1978 film “Autumn Sonata,” stage helmer Robert Woodruff plays out this mother-daughter angst-fest in distances — with a host of theatrical techniques — that make the U.S. preem of the legit adaptation a haunting, harrowing stage experience.
Bergman’s chilly reunion of a neglectful mother and her resentful daughter becomes even more foreboding, cold and dark on stage. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting finds secrets in the shadows, repping a satisfying stage equivalent to cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s work. In lieu of those cinematic close-ups, Woodruff also uses Peter Nigrini’s live and pre-recorded projections to create a fractured dreamscape of memory, illusion and chaos.
With silences, spaces and music, Woodruff creates a powerfully theatrical meditation of the chasm between a daughter’s expectations and a mother’s limitations.
It would be impossible to duplicate the casting coup, star wattage and personal histories of the film’s Ingrid Bergman (she nabbed an Oscar nom for the role) and Liv Ullmann, but Candy Buckley and Rebecca Henderson find their own respectable incarnations of these troubled characters: one in high denial, the other desperately longing for a sense of self.
Buckley plays Charlotte, who abandoned her two daughters to pursue a career as a famed concert pianist. After an estrangement of seven years and following the death of her longtime lover, Charlotte receives an invitation from daughter Eva (Henderson) to visit her in the remote home where she lives with her pastor husband Viktor (Olek Krupa) and — to Charlotte’s surprise — her other daughter, the severely disabled and anguished Helena (Merritt Janson), whom Charlotte institutionalized.
Charlotte is charming, assured and self-centered, clearly more comfortable finding the emotional authenticity and complexity in a piece of music than in her own life. Buckley gives a wonderfully measured perf as a woman who lives in a well-ordered world, but whose mask slips when that world is undone amid recriminations and guilt. The reveal is not as devastatingly raw as in the film, but Buckley convincingly finds her own truths.
Henderson brings heartfelt torment in her climactic show-down with Charlotte but gives too much away in the early scenes, signaling straight away the ticking of this emotional time bomb. There’s also an excess of adolescent whine in some of her dialogue that Bergman wisely edited out in the film, but remains in this pre-shooting script.
Music, both dissonant and melodic, is a key element in Woodruff’s production, with respectable piano playing by all three actresses that is evocative and telling. (Musician Paul Brantley as Charlotte’s departed Leonardo also adds cred and heft on cello.)
Riccardo Hernandez’s design, with its use of screens and shadow box playing spaces, allows Woodruff to emphasize the sense of remove and the lonely world in which these ultimately untouchable characters must live.