In "Private Confessions," the late Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman applied his astringent style to the story of his mother's marital infidelity. The story is scoured free of distractions; in a series of murmured discussions peppered with anguished outbursts, nothing comes between the audience and Bergman's fundamental concerns of guilt and desire, love and God.
Longtime Bergman actress Liv Ullmann, Bergman's romantic partner for a time, directed the film of the autobiographical script in 1996, and she's scaled it up for the National Theater of Norway stage version that's in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through Saturday. That's not to say she's pumped it up: the small cast is mic'd, so the one-on-one confessionals and confrontations, in Norwegian with projected English titles, are still acted as if the camera's in tight.
As Anna, Bergman's mother, Marte Engebrigtsen reveals the details of her affair in hushed tones. Engebrigtsen's Anna is contrite, and yet she's not: her marriage was hollow, and she craved the burst of vitality she discovered in a reluctant younger partner (here played by Morten Svartveit). It's an odd story for a son to write, and you feel Bergman judging her, but also understanding. The script was derived from diaries Bergman discovered after his mother's death, so the play has the quality not only of secrets, but of probed doubts and defensiveness.
Its religious framework is so strong that the show could almost be lighted as if through stained glass, instead of with the deep pensive blues and plain whites by Martin Myrvold that illuminate Milja Salovaara's stark, handsome stage. (The simple backdrop of weathered wood looks like a troubled sky, a complicated view toward heaven.) Anna confesses when by chance she meets Jacob (Bjorn Skagestad), an older priest she's known for years. The secret tumbles out. So does the command to confess.
Mattis Herman Nyquist is the betrayed husband, Henrik, a role Ullmann has expanded from the film, and his flummoxed turn in the face of Anna's surprising affair makes you
believe in the breakdown we're told about later. Ullmann also adds a narrator to this play, played by Kari Simonson, thumbing through a large book as she sets scenes.
Ullmann has said Bergman wanted to be known as a writer, and "Private Confessions" certainly shows off his knack for organizing material — this is not strictly chronological — and for dialogue that's unmannered and so brutally honest that it makes audiences gasp. The first tryst: What was that like? Telling the husband: What was that like? And who wants to know — Bergman the artist, or Bergman the son?
He keeps himself out of it, yet it still feels like a family affair as Ullmann handles it reverently and scrupulously. Nothing is done for effect: the incidental piano and cello music is largely confined between scenes, and Ingrid Nylander's solid-color costumes (black, white, gray) have a monastic simplicity. The fine cast includes Liv Bernhoft Osa as Anna's strong, stern mother and Anneke von der Lippe as Anna's faithful (in every sense) friend Marta. This is not a cathartic performance; the concentrated austerity feels like a reflective, combative session of church. Bergmanphiles will revel.
Private Confessions, by Ingmar Bergman; stage version by Liv Ullmann. Directed by Liv Ullmann. About 2½ hours. Through Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. Tickets $19-$49. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.