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Review: ‘Private Confessions’ at The Kennedy Center

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How might one react to finding and reading their mother’s diary after her death? Did she purposely leave the diary so it would be found and read, rather than destroy it? And, how in Heaven’s name, does one react to discovering intimate details about their own mother’s long ago affair with a younger man; an affair while she was still married to your own father?

While I can’t imagine trying to deal with such a thing without destroying my psyche, one of the most celebrated artists of the last century, Ingmar Bergman did have such an opportunity. As the artist Bergman was, the discovery of his mother’s diary became the source DNA for a film, Private Confessions (1996). Now his mother’s diary entries, and the Private Confessions film, have been further adapted to become an astounding, quiet shout of a stage production of the same name.

Marte Engebrigtsen (Anna) and Anneke von der Lippe (Marta). Photograph by Erik Berg.

I call it a quiet shout, because Private Confessions is accomplished as a spiritual quest for understanding, if not forgiveness. The overall tone is quite like someone seeking God’s guidance, if not absolution, through private prayer for a sin knowingly committed.

Under Liv Ullmann’s assured “holding the audience tightly” direction, Private Confessions is performed in hushed tones (Norwegian with projected English titles), subdued physical action, muted costume design (Ingrid Nylander), minimalist sets (Milja Saslovaara), and mood defining lighting (Nils Wingerei).

There are rare loud verbal outbursts. Stutters and stammers portray anger, hurt, or humiliation. But, let me be clear: there is blood to be seen in this production. My mind going back to lyrics from Billy Joel:

The wound is so fresh you can taste the blood
But you don’t have strength to leave

Kari Simonsen as The Narrator. Photograph by Erik Berg.

Private Confessions centers on the character of wife and mother Anna (Marte Engelbrigtsen, seemingly illuminated from within) looking back to the turbulent 1925-1935 period of her life. With the assistance of a narrator (Kari Simonsen as the character of Anna later in her life) reading bits and pieces from Anna’s diary, we come to know Anna as she slowly reveals needs and desires for freedom and choices. This includes finding true love that includes mutual physical intimacy and pleasure to feed her soul; even if that mean infidelity. Radical ideas indeed to act upon for a woman in the world Anna inhabited.

Over the course of Private Confessions, there are about a dozen scenes with Anna usually at center stage. The audience also meets her dazed and confused husband, Henrik (a nuanced performance from Mattis Herman Nyquist, with verbal tics that speak volumes); her confidant, and partner-in-deception, Marta (a solid, convincing Anneke von der Lippe); a tough, confession-hearing, guidance-providing Protestant deacon (Bjorn Skagestad in a key, very telling arc of a role); as well as Anna’s young, overwhelmed lover Tomas (Mortin Svartveit); and Anna’s own hard-nosed mother (Liv Bernhoft Osa).

I sat mesmerized at the verbal wordplay of Private Confessions. Any number of lines from the play still sit in my brain; words that cut without a curse or bombast. They are words and phrases I cannot imagine hearing aimed at anyone, as they reach their intended on-stage targets.

Audience members ready and able to take in this brilliant, National Theater of Norway production of Private Confessions, are in for strong theater. Those that know Bergman and Ullman from their own Baby Boomer youth may need no introduction to either. For others, previous knowledge of either Bergman or Ullmann is totally unnecessary to adore Private Confessions with its directness; its heartbreaking scenes depicting one woman’s secrets and lies as she tries to live a life with freedom and choice. Private Confessions is truly an event, with a message that will resonate with anyone who has ever been in a relationship, or a marriage, or a partnership.

Private Confessions will get under your skin (as it did mine), then into your bloodstream to stay a while.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Private Confessions runs through December 9, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

Note: A co-production between National Theater of Norway and Riksteatret.  Performed in Norwegian with projected English titles. Recommended for age 16 and up. Part of the Kennedy Center’s Bergman 100 Celebration.

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