Laura Linney is never one to avoid a challenge. When she last appeared at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre she was alternating in the roles of “Regina” and “Birdie” in the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes and won a Tony Award for Best Actress for her efforts. Now she is back in an adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton where she plays both the title character and her mother and is the only performer on stage. Directed as she was in the London production by Richard Eyre, she beautifully captures the tone and voice of Strout’s heroine.
Strout has two major themes: difficult women (the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again, Lucy Barton’s mother) and fraught mother/daughter relationships (Amy and Isabelle, My Name Is Lucy Barton). Rona Munro’s adaptation of the novel combines both as did the book. The novel is a recollected memory and a dramatic monologue which the play is as well. As Lucy recounts, she was in the hospital some years ago for an appendectomy which left her with unexplained fevers which lasted nine weeks. One day three weeks into her stay, she woke up to find her estranged mother at the foot of her bed, a mother she had not seen since she brought William, her fiancée and now her husband, to visit her parents in the farmhouse in which she grew up in rural Amgash, Illinois. One hundred miles west of Chicago, Amgash was the town she had left behind when she went off to college, never to live there again.
Alternating between playing both Lucy in bed and her mother sitting in the arm chair, Linney recalls Lucy’s difficult poverty-stricken childhood with a father who came back from W.W. II with post-traumatic stress disorder and a strict mother who was unable to deal with her children’s needs. Hungry and poorly clothed, Lucy, her sister Vicky and brother Peter were laughed at in school and ostracized by the others. One of Lucy’s worst memories was being locked in her father’s truck up to the age of five while her parents were at work and her siblings were at school, which she now realized was to keep her out of trouble. Discovering reading as a refuge at an early age, Lucy vowed to become a writer and to help her get out of Amgash. After marrying and leaving for New York where her husband had a college teaching job, Lucy has never gone back to visit her family even after she had two children, Becka and Chrissie.
Lucy and her mother attempt to reconnect after all these years and Lucy does not recall hearing her mother speak so much in all the years she has known her. Her mother speaks of friends and family from back in Amgash, neighbor Kathie Nicely, Cousin Harriet, Annie Appleby whose father was a friend of Mr. Barton, church member Marilyn Mathews, Mississippi Mary, but never once asks about Lucy’s husband or children. Nor does she ever mention Lucy’s father, or ask about Lucy’s writing career. It has been mentioned elsewhere in reference to the novel that all of the mother’s stories are all about bad marriages which may be the only way she can talk about herself or investigate Lucy’s marriage to William.
Lucy also remembers a writing workshop she took with a famous novelist who told the class each of us has only one story to tell but we must find that story. Her neighbor and friend Jeremy who develops AIDS while she is in the hospital tells her that she must be ruthless about her writing. This may be what her mother meant when she compares her to her sister and brother: “You didn’t care as much what people thought. Look at your life. You just went ahead and did it.” Her mother stays with her five days and nights and then leaves for only her second trip on an airplane and the fear of having to find a taxi to La Guardia Airport. Lucy then tells us about her marriage, her children and her eventual decision about her writing life. She has indeed learned to be ruthless but she is able to see the events of her life with compassion and understanding. She also speaks of visiting her mother in a hospital room in Chicago some years later when her mother is terminally ill.
Linney is a charming and charismatic presence as she tells Lucy’s story in retrospect. Recounting her life in low-key fashion, it is as though she has come to terms with abuse and disappointment and recovery. Desperately she wants some affirmation from her mother which is not forthcoming. Playing the mother, Linney begins with a Midwest accent but loses it partly into the play. One wonders what the play might have been like to have another actress as Mrs. Barton but as she has all the best lines, it might have upstaged the star. There is an elegiac quality to Linney’s performance as though all this is in the past and she has come to terms with it. Linney seems much more understanding of her family as she recounts the story to us than Lucy had been in her past.
The production team is the same one that worked on the London production at the Bridge Theatre in June 2018. The scenic concept with set design by Bob Crowley and video design by Luke Halls is most effective. Behind the hospital bed and armchair is a screen whose images segue from the New York skyline which shows the Chrysler Building outside Lucy’s room to the green and yellow fields of Illinois and the Bartons’ lonely farm house. As the colors change, we experience the passing seasons along with Peter Mumford’s subtle lighting design. Crowley’s single costume for Linney is subdued enough to stand in for Lucy at different ages as well as her mother.
Rona Munro’s adaptation of Strout’s novel is a streamlined condensation of the original which gives the same feeling as the book. Under Richard Eyre’s unobtrusive direction, Laura Linney gives a lovely and compelling portrait of a woman who has lived through much grief but has come out the other side whole. As Lucy Barton, she put an entire woman’s life on the stage in a dense and compact 90 minutes. This is quite a dramatic achievement. It is possible that women will identify more fully with Lucy Barton than men but the revelations should be equally compelling for both.
My Name Is Lucy Barton (through February 29, 2020)
Manhattan Theatre Club and The London Theatre Company, in association with Penguin Random House Audio
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission