Charlotte was a touring classical pianist who, years ago, was at extreme odds with Eva, inward and repressed. The other daughter, Helena (Merritt Janson), suffered from a debilitating illness from her childhood and the condition accelerates as Helena grows older. Lena, as she is called, makes indecipherable sounds. Charlotte, after a seven year absence, returns to visit and stay, perhaps, at the home of Eva and Eva's older husband, Viktor (Olek Krupa), a pastor in a Norway church.
Charlotte is a gifted pianist and Eva, too, plays. At one point, Eva presents a Chopin prelude. Her mother's reaction is: "I was moved." Then, "I like you." The comments are devastating. Candy Buckley's portrayal of the icy, haughty, distant Charlotte is precise. Rebecca Henderson's Eva, hurt so deeply as girl, eventually stands up to her mother. None of this is pretty.
A piano is situated downstage and another toward the rear. Somehow, Helena (out of character and in the role of musician) is able to play, quite beautifully, the less visible piano. Paul Brantley performs on the cello with great dexterity. Neither of the other actresses is a pianist and it is unclear whether they are really playing during the performance.
Robert Woodruff directs the presentation with definitive choices. Each actor individually wears a microphone. The amplification, at first, is an annoyance. Yet, as the 100-minute performance (without intermission) evolves, the amplified sound helps envelop theatergoers. So, too, does Woodruff's decision to utilize many projections of the actors' faces. These appear on shades or a scrim just behind the first performance area. Again, this imaginative technique is simultaneously irritating and effective. Woodruff also employs live and pre-recorded video.
The bond and understanding between the sisters is, at once, saddening and stunning. Only Eva understands Lena. At times, actress Merritt Janson can do little more than smack her head violently upon the headrest of her chair. When she utters something, her sister understands. For example, Lena makes a noise. Eva says to Charlotte, "She wants you to take her head in your hands and look at her." It is a breathtaking and difficult moment, one of many in Autumn Sonata. Late, just before the play's epilogue, Buckley screams with a primal ferocity which is frightful.
Bergman's film version of Autumn Sonata appeared in 1978. That movie, impetus for the play, must have been dark. The resultant Yale Rep piece, however depressing, does not numb and deaden. Instead, the passion serves to compel attention.
The cast for the play is to be complimented for finding these demanding characters and staying with them throughout. I would never sit through Autumn Sonata a second time and elect to be trapped by its disturbing misery. To feel such lack of ease and discomfort is painful. As dramatic theater, however, the production totally engages.
Autumn Sonata continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through May 7th. For ticket information, call (203) 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.
- Fred Sokol