Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 film “Autumn Sonata” is probably most remembered for its pairing of stars Ingrid Bergman (no relation to the director) and Liv Ullman, rather than as one of the Swedish director’s most famous or popular films. It does, however, lend itself to theatrical adaptation–not surprising, since Bergman was a renown theatre director as well.
The stage production of “Autumn Sonata” that is currently playing at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven is based on a literal adaptation by Wendy Weckwerth of the pre-filming which director Robert Woodruff and his collaborators have turned into a quirky, yet ultimately satisfying evening.
A sonata is musical piece that in more modern times is set for two instruments, just as “Autumn Sonata,” in both its film and stage forms, is about the relationship between two women, Charlotte, a successful, albeit self-absorbed classical pianist, and her quiet, distressed daughter Eva, who have been estranged for several years. Following the death of Charlotte’s second husband, Leonardo, Eva invites her mother to come for a visit to the isolated parsonage that Eva shares with her minister husband, the slightly older Viktor. How the two women relate in such close quarters and the resulting discoveries, revelations and confessions form the crux of the work.
Woodruff, whose directing style can frequently challenge and alienate an audience, has chosen to emphasize the work’s filmic origins, not only through the use of film and live streaming video projections of the actual action on stage, but by working with set designer Riccardo Hernandez to place a long box-like structure across the length of the stage which contains a long, narrow rectangular window allowing glimpses into Charlotte’s guest bedroom and memory. Four sets of horizontal blinds can be opened or closed in various combinations to reveal the action within, while visuals can also be projected onto the back wall.. There is also a playing area to immediate front of the box, adjacent to the lip of the stage, with several tables and chairs to represent the dining room, kitchen and study of the home.
As a result, the set itself becomes a literal version of the sharp edges within Bergman’s script. The constant interplay of horizontal and vertical lines abets the intensifying tension between mother and daughter, along with the posture and movement of Woodruff’s actors. Candy Buckley’s Charlotte comes across as tall, poised and composed, while Rebecca Henderson’s bespectacled Eva seems frequently defeated and uncertain. This only seems natural, since Charlotte left her family frequently behind while she toured to much acclaim, leaving Eva with her father, who passed away before Eva’s marriage. Unknown to Charlotte, however, Eva has brought her severely-disabled younger sister, Helena, out of the institution where Charlotte had placed her to live with her and her husband in the parsonage, something Eva feels would have prevented her mother from visiting had Charlotte known in advance.
While Charlotte reacts with great kindness to her other daughter, she experiences a horrific dream while lying in bed of the Helena dragging herself our of her wheelchair and crawling slowly and painfully across the floor to Charlotte’s side. Woodruff and projection designer Peter Nigrini emphasize the nightmarish quality with background film in which the daughter struggles from different perspectives and sizes.
As in many Woodruff productions, there are a lot of elements going on at one time on the stage. Scenes are differentiated by subheads projected onto the upper left corner of the box like structure, resembling in some cases scene titles in silent film. Members of the stage and sound crew are visible in their black leather jackets as they move props on and off the stage (notably in an out of the box-like structure) or adjust sound effects as when radio volume is turned up or down.
Music is also essential to Woodruff’s concept, as he and music director Michael Attias have mirrored the rich music used in the final version of Bergman’s from Bach, Beethoven and Schumann, but Attias has composed original music influenced by some twentieth century musical figures such as Morton Feldman and John Cage. Paul Brantley, a composer, conductor and music director who appears as Leonardo in filmed and photographic flashbacks, is also onstage providing live cello accompaniment and it appears that both Buckley and Henderson are actually playing the onstage piano, as mother and daughter each offer their own takes on Chopin’s Opus 28, Number 2 and its dissonant relationship between melody and harmony.
Olek Krupa is quite convincing as Viktor, who serves the anchor upon which Eva’s insecurities can rest and who can understand and accept the real and imagined hurts that his wife believes she suffered from Charlotte, all the while suspecting that at heart his wife does not truly love him. Merritt Janson plays the wheelchair-bound Helena with heart-rendering accuracy (and can also be spotted playing piano upstage).
Buckley initially seemed to be too young to be playing Charlotte, but that may have been a result of remembering Ingrid Bergman in the film. In the astonishing film at the end of the work, in which Charlotte is seen returning from her visit on a train, Buckley’s Charlotte seems more weathered and worn by the experience, in counterpoint to the relief-filled conversation she is having with her manager.
It is impressive to see how readily Ingmar Bergman’s script plays out on stage. Woodruff’s fascinating, frustrating staging can be taken as an academic exercise, which does serve to distance an audience from the characters, but in this case can also complement the chilly, isolated world of rural Norway, where Bergman set his film. But as Buckley’s and Henderson turn their sonata into a more roundelay with deadly emotional consequences, and as Krupa and Janson offer helpful counterpoint from time to time, “Autumn Sonata” offers a thoughtful, disturbing glimpse into the intensity of familial relationships.
“Autumn Sonata” plays at the Yale Repertory Theater through Saturday, May 7. For tickets, call the Box Office at (203) 432.1234 or visit them online at yalerep.org