“Autumn Sonata,” Yale Repertory Theatre
It is time-honored Ingmar Bergman territory—the cold North, the dark nights, the haunting shadows, the tortured relationships. But the scene has moved from film to stage—specifically, to Yale Rep, where “Autumn Sonata” now plays. Though this production/play is cold, off-putting, and generally unpleasant, it nevertheless explores provocative themes—and does so with style.
This “Autumn Sonata” is an exact translation (by Wendy Weckwerth) of the 1978 screen play. It was commissioned specifically for director Robert Woodruff, who took it from there. But the play owes as much to the memorable Swedish film director as to Woodruff. The directors are in sync, focusing on such existential questions as cosmic despair, presence of death, and one’s reason for existence.
Woodruff has put together an episodic, coldly-distancing production which spells out the tale. A viewer can hardly care what happens to these characters, as they struggle with their past and present angsts. It is like observing bugs under a microscope. Yet there are moments which chill, resonating for the viewer as they evoke personal memories.
Music is very much part of the proceedings, with Bach, Beethoven, and other classical composers providing background sound—and invading the story itself. For example, the lead character, a pianist, criticizes her daughter’s playing of a Chopin piece and shows her how it should be played.
The tale? Charlotte, a world-famous concert pianist, has chosen to visit her daughter Eva, whom she has not seen in seven years. The unexpected visit is prompted by the death of her long-time lover. She may stay on permanently, she tells her daughter, as the two lovingly reunite. Eva lives with her husband Viktor and the sister whom she tends. (Helena is severely ill with a mental/neurological disorder which is never clearly defined.) Caring for Helena compensates for Eva’s loss of her own son Erik, who had died at age four. Death is never far away in this tale.
But, as is soon apparent, Charlotte’s protestations of love are false. This mother is vain, self-absorbed. Neither her children, grandchild (whom she had never met), past husband, nor former lovers are of genuine concern. When she learns of Helena’s presence, she is distraught. She does not want to see this daughter whom she had had institutionalized years earlier.
The story proceeds in a series of sharp, short, painful episodes, emphasized by Riccardo Hernandez’s hard-edged scenes (with drop screens and video images). Gradually, pretenses peel away and the truth stands naked, as mother and daughter confront each other. Candy Buckley gives a memorable performance as Charlotte. She creates a facade with strong dramatic flair, nervously lighting cigarettes one after another and laughing raucously. She is ever the performer, only gradually crumbling before her daughter’s onslaught. And a startling performance is forthcoming from Merritt Janson, playing the very ill daughter who says not one clear word. In addition, solid back-up comes from Rebecca Henderson as the long-suffering Eva and Olek Krupa as the staunch Viktor.
In all, this “Autumn Sonata” is no bundle of laughs. But it does offer a new vision of a disturbing Bergman film.