Laura Linney pours the breath of life into Broadway’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, based on the novel by Olive Kitteridge author Elizabeth Strout. Arriving in New York following an acclaimed London production, this poignant, 90-minute solo play, directed by Richard Eyre and opening tonight at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, conjures up an entire life – or two or three – through the sometimes fuzzy, always penetrating memories of a middle-aged woman still coming to terms with a childhood few would wish to recall.
Adapted by Rona Munro from Strout’s bestseller, Lucy Barton is set entirely in the hospital room – or, as all else here, the remembered hospital room – inhabited for nine long-ago weeks by the title character. When a routine operation goes awry, Lucy, missing her husband and two young daughters, is surprised to find her estranged mother holding vigil at her bedside.
Linney portrays both women, shifting into a honking, aggressive Midwestern bray for the mother (or, at least, the mother as remembered, years later, by Lucy just as her own daughters have reached adulthood). You’d have to go back to August: Osage County to find a nastier, more embittered mom than Lucy’s. Even her compliments are designed to sting (“You didn’t care as much what people thought,” Mother tells Lucy before adding the kicker, “Look at your life.”)
As the two women, who haven’t seen each other for years, struggle to make conversation, Lucy confides to us her own history and the internal life she can’t convey to her mother. A college scholarship and, then, young married life in Manhattan’s West Village seemed to have rescued Lucy from a rural upbringing in brutal poverty, abusive, damaged parents and a childhood loneliness that left the little girl imagining a towering tree as her only friend.
Later came the appendix operation gone bad, isolating Lucy in a New York City hospital room as confining as the locked pickup truck her parents used as punishment for crying. As if those memories weren’t enough, Mother arrives, the traumatic past made flesh.
And what a walking, talking trauma. To paraphrase Angels in America’s Joe Pitt (who knew about tough mothers), Lucy’s mom just sorta brings the hardscrabble Midwest with her. Mostly to kill time and fill dead air, Mother tells one long, gossipy anecdote after another, usually some bit of nasty news from Almgash, Illinois, often recounted with an I told you so superiority. She seems to relish the tribulations of friends and acquaintances, their stupidity – meaning, they don’t share Mother’s viewpoint – stoking the schadenfreude. Old friends, childhood playmates, her own children – no one is spared from the sort of cruelly dismissive, passively aggressive, poisonously resentful hatchet Mother swings.
What made Mother so hard? We get clues here and there – no spoilers – and life couldn’t have been easy with her husband, a World War II vet so damaged by his own split-second wartime decision that he’ll occasionally have strange, unexplained fugue-state episodes that terrify the children. Perhaps it was during one of those episodes when the father cruelly forced Lucy’s young brother to walk through town, in tears, wearing the women’s clothes he’d been caught trying on.
With all this history lurking unsaid in that hospital room, perhaps it’s no wonder Lucy can’t find the emotional space to share more recent memories with her mother – about her marriage, her daughters, the treasured gay neighbor who will soon die of AIDS, life in 1980s New York.
With such big specters crowding into that room – not only AIDS, but the horrors of WWII, domestic abuse, mental health, homophobia – Lucy Barton can feel both overstuffed and stretched thin. Despite Linney’s extraordinary performance, the play, very occasionally, feels a bit flat, its revelations too predictable.
Still, Linney is so adept at evoking a person’s inner world that she never once loses our focus. Her Lucy has a world of happiness and hurt just waiting for an introduction to Mother, but that’s an introduction that never arrives.
The audience comes to know that world well, of course, not only through Lucy’s telling but the evocative video design of Luke Halls, projected dreamy images on three large backdrop panels, of cornfields and the solitary ramshackle farmhouse of Lucy’s childhood, of the midtown Manhattan view outside Lucy’s hospital window, the Chrysler Building taking on picture postcard clarity sometimes, a ghostly, foggy visage at others.
Those projections perfectly complement Bob Crowley’s minimalist hospital set – a chair and a hospital bed providing mother and daughter each with her own battle station, retreat and, occasionally, a place from where each woman can make some tentative gesture of reconciliation.
We know, or strongly suspect, very early in the play that a happy mother-daughter ending isn’t likely, at least not in any traditional dramatic way. What My Name is Lucy Barton does instead – in its writing, in Eyre’s tender direction, in Linney’s compassionate performance – is provide a setting in which the women can come to some understanding about their relationship and maybe themselves. Their successes and failures will haunt Lucy – and her audience – for a very long time.