When the theater goes to the library for inspiration, the results can often be disappointing. Even great books can wither and wilt when they are adapted for the stage. A happy if not entirely unexpected exception is “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout.
The Broadway production, which has opened at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre following an acclaimed London run, retains all the book’s quietly radiant humanity. And this quality is even enhanced by the performance of Laura Linney, the sole actor onstage, who embodies it to perfection. Although there is nothing florid or flashy about it — its delicacy and containment are the opposite of superficial bravura — hers is nevertheless the finest performance of the Broadway season to date.
The production, adapted by Rona Munro and directed with a becoming austerity by the veteran Richard Eyre, benefits from the surface simplicity of the book’s structure. It is written in the first person, from the point of view of the title character, and so is naturally adapted to the monologue format it takes here. Yes, it moves across time, as Lucy, who is stuck in the hospital for weeks when infection sets in after a minor operation, reassesses her life as someone half-standing outside it. (A hospital stay will, if you’ve ever experienced one, seem to remove you from your well-known self.) And while her time in the hospital provides the narrative with a focus, we also learn, in impressionistic shards, of much that happened after her illness and the life that led up to it.
Lucy’s journey into the past, which sends her on a ruminative odyssey through the dark lows and the bright highs of her life, is instigated by the sudden — and wholly unexpected — appearance of her mother in a chair in her hospital room. They have long been estranged, for reasons that become clear as Lucy unfolds her backstory: her upbringing in a small town in Illinois, where the family was so poor she and her siblings, a sister and a brother, were mocked and shunned by the townspeople. At home, they were deprived of affection and occasionally cruelly or casually abused by both Lucy’s mother and her father, a veteran of World War II whose guilt over an incident during the war warped his mind and perhaps corrupted his soul.
This history, baldly summarized, might make for a melodrama, especially when it becomes clear that Lucy has gone on to escape that suffocating small town — if not its anguishing hold on her heart — and thrive as a writer in New York City. But Strout’s writing, uncommonly and sometimes unbearably beautiful in its subtle emotional precision, here as in her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,” strips away any sentimentality or sensationalism from even the shocking details of Lucy’s story.
Linney delivers that history with an intelligent, seemingly instinctive feel for the carefully cultivated rhythms of Strout’s prose. (Much of Munro’s adaptation is drawn directly from the book.) Linney has made regular stage appearances over the years, but here is challenged — and perhaps inspired — by the demands of a solo performance running 90 minutes.
What’s most remarkable about it is how Linney manages to infuse the character’s naturally restrained, economical but piercingly observant voice with an easy luminosity, so that, as in the book, the almost ordinary cadences of the language seem to glint and shimmer with subterranean feeling. Linney wipes tears from her cheeks on more than one occasion when Lucy recalls bleak moments from the past, such as her father’s appalling treatment of her brother, when he finds him playing dress-up in his mother’s clothes, for instance.
But the gesture is made with a mere flick of a finger: Lucy has not inherited much from her mother, but an aversion to emotional overindulgence may be one of them. Linney makes translucently clear how pain rests under the surface, an ache that only occasionally rises to full consciousness. But there’s no mistaking that under Lucy’s seemingly dry recounting of the hardships and cruelties of her youth lies a heart still scarred by what it has endured, and by the conflicted feelings toward her mother that are at the heart of the story.
Linney moves easily between narrating that story and occasionally stepping into it, and into the character of Lucy’s mother, as she glides from hospital bed to the chair where her mother holds vigil for several days before abruptly departing. (The simple set, by Bob Crowley, is a series of gray prosceniums that reminded me of one of Josef Albers’ more muted compositions; video projections by Luke Halls move us from Midwestern corn fields to the streets of New York.) Although she doesn’t change costume or attempt any obvious physical mimicry, Linney flattens her voice into a slightly nasal Midwestern twang when she is speaking in Lucy’s mother’s voice, which is almost devoid of emotional inflection.
Even after years apart, Lucy’s mother still appears flinty, ungenerous, unrepentant and unwilling to indulge Lucy’s attempts to bridge the distance that has grown between them over the years, or to acknowledge the damage she inflicted on her children. And yet, in moments of quiet, gossipy intimacy, glimpses of a bedrock of love can be seen. “My Name Is Lucy Barton” achieves its subtly devastating power through its examination of the mysterious nuances of this particular form of love, and what it shares with other kinds: it can be both evanescent and enduring at the same time, seemingly invisible yet mysteriously present, a burden and a consolation.
Lucy’s mother, rubbed raw through hard experience and perhaps by natural inclination as well, is among those who are constitutionally incapable of expressing affection in conventional, or even natural, ways, and Linney does not soften or sentimentalize the portrait. The words cannot be spoken; the familiar gestures of affection are alien, even repellent to such people. And yet, as Lucy’s final, affirmative burst of feeling toward her life illustrates, unexpressed love can be a force no less powerful for its silence, just as life’s pains and trials are perhaps inseparable from its beauty.
“My Name Is Lucy Barton” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Wed., Jan. 15, 2020.
Producers: Manhattan Theatre Club and The London Theatre Company; Produced in association with Penguin Random House Audio.
Creative: Written by Elizabeth Strout; Adapted by Rona Munro; Directed by Richard Eyre; Scenic Design by Bob Crowley; Costume Design by Bob Crowley; Lighting Design by Peter Mumford; Sound Design by John Leonard.
Cast: Laura Linney.