Set in 1960 at a summer home near Sweden, the play opens with Mulligan, her husband, her father, and her younger brother coming in from a swim together. The family, at first glance, seems like a strong unit. Soon, though, we discover that Mulligan's character, Karin, suffers from a mental illness that leaves her loved ones feeling helpless. Over the course of the play, we discover the voices inside Karin's head which ultimately force the family members to confront all of their demons.
The themes this play raises remind me of The Other Place, an off-Broadway production that starred Laurie Metcalf this spring. That play, too, features a strong-minded female lead who must deal with internal issues, spurred along by memories of a distant place that remains near and dear to her heart. I couldn't help but compare Metcalf's Juliana with Mulligan's Karin, both of whom push their spouses away, their way of both rejecting and protecting them at once. In both plays, their partners are doctors who are hoping to help them with more than just emotional support.
What separates Mulligan's performance, though, is her character's need to interact closely and intimately with other characters besides for her loving spouse. The Other Place heavily centers on the relationship of the couple, while Glass Darkly wants you to see more of Karin's life than that. It's not supposed to be a getaway for her and husband, David, to escape from their troubles; rather, it's intended to be a reunion for Karin and her family to help Karin recover from a stint at a hospital. Karin's father and brother are there too as reminders of better times before she was so sick. Yet, in such close quarters and with so many old memories being conjured up, things quickly unravel for Karin.
Mulligan comfortably commands the stage, moving from scene to scene, character to character. In fact, most scenes in the play have Karin and one other character speaking one-on-one. She goes from a contemptuous dispute with her husband, to a touching moment with her father, to an insightful conversation with her younger brother. The way Karin around is as important as the discussions she has and the revelations we discover. During the play, Mulligan showcases talent for both the whimsical and the sullen, sometimes within the same scene.
It all goes to show how unpredictable and difficult mental illness can be. When it strikes, it hits her and her family hard. The mere threat of an episode partly paralyzes them. Without saying much, Karin can hold everyone's attention.