Watching Carey Mulligan, the astonishing young actress who has been creating more buzz than a beehive (in the film “An Education” and in the Broadway production of “The Seagull”), lose her mind in 90 minutes is ample reason to see the Atlantic Theater Company’s disquieting production of “Through a Glass Darkly.” Jenny Worton’s stage adaptation can’t re-create the bone-chilling scenic desolation of Ingmar Bergman’s Academy Award-winning 1961 film. But under David Leveaux’s helming, the interior landscape of this claustrophobic chamber piece about a family that disintegrates over the course of a summer holiday is bleakly beautiful on its own terms.
There’s no denying that the loss of key elements of the Bergman film template — brooding seascapes, penetrating closeups, stark black-and-white definition — diminishes the range and impact of the story, which begins on an untrustworthy note of happiness. Nonetheless, the stage treatment distills the human emotions into a powerful brew.
“Everything will be perfect this holiday,” Karin (Mulligan) blithely exclaims, as she joins her husband Martin (Jason Butler Harner), her teenaged brother Max (Ben Rosenfield), and their father David (Chris Sarandon) as the family settles into a weather-beaten cottage on a remote island in the Baltic Sea.
Takeshi Kata has designed a stunning split-focus set (lighted in cool, isolating tones by David Weiner) that obliquely references both the family’s emotional disconnectedness and the advancing schizophrenia that will send Karin into madness. On stage left, the boxed-in interior of the claustrophobic cottage. On stage right, an expressionistic expanse of lonely beach. And against it all, a bleached blue “sky” of painted planks.
But the spot that draws the eye — and where Mulligan claims the acting high ground — is the attic where Karin retreats to commune with the god she hears calling to her from behind the faded wallpaper.
The most interesting aspect of this remarkable performance is its clarity. Mulligan doesn’t take Karin on a slow, graceful spiral into insanity. Rather, she splits herself into two distinct persona.
Although always volatile and often dangerous, Karin seems lucid enough as she tries to reassure her concerned but ineffectual husband (his anguish manifest in Harner’s simpatico perf), or incestuously toys with the ricocheting hormones of her brother (a break-out perf from young Rosenfield). But Mulligan switches gears in a heartbeat the minute she steps into the attic for one of her rapturous religious experiences, suggesting that it’s ultimately Karin’s own choice as to which mental landscape she eventually decides to inhabit.
It’s only when Karin confronts her father (a Scandinavian iceberg, in Sarandon’s glacial perf), a famous but second-rate novelist who callously admits to using his daughter’s ordeal to sharpen his literary acuity, that Mulligan allows us to glimpse her internal suffering and grasp her profound isolation.
Unlike the film, the stage version distilled by Worton (an associate artist with the Almeida Theater in London, where the play preemed) doesn’t delve deeply enough into the guilt felt by the father, a definitively dour Bergman-like character. Lacking the film’s often silent but unbearably intense closeups, the play doesn’t actually penetrate the depths of any character but Karin. But given the power and passion of Mulligan’s perf, who could complain about that?