The puzzle underlying the Atlantic Theater’s production of Through a Glass Darkly (New York Theatre Workshop) is why anyone should ever have wanted to produce the screenplay of Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 film as a piece of theater. Bergman, who wrote a good many plays, chose to put this highly personal work on celluloid, with results that need no improvement. His four actors, three of them already familiar from earlier Bergman films, locked their on-screen presences ineradicably into this story—a story that, though moving, resonates less with the wider world than with our understanding of Bergman. Seeing another director’s stage version of it is like trying to visit someone you love at what you know is the wrong address.
The address is the desolate island where David (Chris Sarandon), a successful novelist, is vacationing with his family: his daughter Karin (Carey Mulligan); her doctor husband, Martin (Jason Butler Harner); and Karin’s younger brother, Max (Ben Rosenfield). David, a widower just back from an unsuccessful second marriage, is a guilt-haunted hack, painfully aware of his failings as artist and father, who’s spent years alternately neglecting his children and notating their emotional travails for use in his work.
Karin, lately out of a mental hospital, suffers from schizophrenia, possibly inherited from her mother. Max (named Minus in Bergman’s film) suffers from the blend of paternal apathy and pubescent sexual turmoil that customarily afflicts Bergman’s boy characters (cf. A Little Night Music’s Henrik). The island vacation, needless to say, gets cut short. Karin has a relapse, in the process traumatizing Max and bringing David’s years of built-up evasion down with a crash. Even ploddingly supportive Martin is severely tested. The end offers a decidedly meager shred of hope.
David Leveaux’s production respects the weighty experience Bergman is trying to express, but only conveys a bare hint of it. Though often evoking the stark visual elegance created by Bergman and his genius cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, Leveaux can’t reproduce, on the stage, the original’s masterful power. Beyond Bergman’s stunning sense of visual fields, there’s his fascination with faces: Even the best actors alive, at a moderate distance from a theater audience, couldn’t rival the close-ups that have etched Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Max Von Sydow onto the world’s memory banks. Given the impossibility, Leveaux’s cast does well. It’s just that they seem to be waving at the event from a distance rather than living through it. The Criterion DVD has excellent subtitles.