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Theatre in Review: My Name is Lucy Barton (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

Laura Linney. Photo: Matthew Murphy

If you want to see what a great stage actress at her peak looks like, I can do no better than suggest a visit to the Samuel J. Friedman. As the title character of My Name is Lucy Barton -- a woman who spends much of her life assiduously avoiding the spotlight -- Laura Linney commands the stage without seeming to try, taking us inside the heart and mind of a character whose life has been uniquely shaped by extraordinary -- and sometimes horribly cruel -- circumstances. The word "luminous" is so overused that it often seems to have lost any meaning, but Linney here restores it to its full luster.

A solo piece, artfully adapted by Rona Munro from the novel by Elizabeth Strout, it focuses on a nine-week period in the title character's life, when -- as a young wife and mother, living in Greenwich Village and struggling to become a published writer -- she undergoes an appendix operation followed by an apparent infection that leaves her hospitalized for over two months. "In those nine weeks," she notes, "I was uncertain of my survival."

Aside from her troubling health prospects, Lucy's illness has left her family in something of an uproar. Then, to her profound surprise, she says, "About three weeks after I was admitted, I found my mother sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed." Not only does the lady never leave her home in Amgash, Illinois, mother and daughter rarely, if ever, see each other. You can't exactly call them estranged, but an enormous gulf exists between Lucy and her parents (and siblings). Even when occupying the same space, they seem to communicate telegraphically, leaving anything of significance unspoken.

Indeed, Lucy's mother is a kind of hanging judge, sizing up others in acid-dipped sentences that trail off into damning silences, which -- accompanied by meaningful looks -- arraign, convict, and sentence their subjects for a variety of crimes, all of which, generally, boil down to not knowing one's place. (In more than one way, she recalls the vinegary Olive Kittredge, the lead character in two other books by Strout.) Speaking about a neighbor, she says, "Kathie Nicely always wanted more," hitting that last word hard, as if to suggest a ferocious and utterly unseemly lust for life. Discussing another acquaintance on her wedding day, she begins, "Linda, gussied up in white," then pauses, screwing up her face to make the point that, given the young lady involved, scarlet would have been a better choice. "He was from the East, Dottie's husband," she says another time, letting the charge hang in the air for a second. "Somewhere here along the Eastern Seaboard he came from. Thought he was just a tiny bit better than she was, probably." (That last sentence has the force of nails being driven into a coffin.) So thoroughly does Linney evoke the character and her deadpan philosophy that you may find yourself believing -- just for a second -- that the stage is occupied by two performers.

Such scalding opinions are revelatory of the siege mentality in which Lucy was raised, a key aspect of a childhood that all too frequently approached the Dickensian. Lucy's father -- an emotionally scarred World War II veteran -- and mother always were hard workers, but their tiny house never smelled right; amenities like books, newspapers, and television were absent; and Lucy and her sister were figures of fun at school. Even more poignantly, Lucy recalls, "When he said our prayers with us at night, our father made us thank God that we had enough food, but what we had for supper, many nights, was molasses on bread." Other low points included "the thing," which occurred when her father, triggered in some way, would become overwhelmed by anxiety, and a routine punishment that involved locking Lucy up in the family truck.

And yet, Lucy's tale is neither an act of revenge nor a repudiation. Fueled by a love of literature and the desire to write, she grows into a canny, compassionate observer, seeing her family's failings in context and honoring the mysteries she knows she can never resolve. Furthermore, she becomes adept at holding on to the crumbs of unconditional love thrown in her direction, learning to subsist on them until something more substantial appears. Most crucially, she finds the strength to become herself. "Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life," she says, "and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me." And yet she finds deep in herself the will to thrive.

. Under the direction of Richard Eyre, the simple, plangent, yet ultimately triumphant truth of Lucy's story is allowed to blossom. Bob Crowley's hospital-room set is frequently transformed by Luke Halls' projections of Illinois fields and night and day views of the New York City skyline. (Crowley also dresses Linney with a shrewd grasp of Lucy's character.) Peter Mumford's lighting shifts instantly from warmly toned looks, expressive of Lucy's inner emotions, to clinically cold white hospital lighting. John Leonard's sound design provides a number of key effects, including birdsong and ambient hospital noises, although I could do without the occasional underscoring, which feels oddly intrusive.

There is also a slight issue of overlength, a perhaps inevitable problem when transferring a piece of literature without a strong dramatic spine to the stage. But Linney's simple, apparently seamless technique is a wonder, and the script argues powerfully that Lucy's forgiveness of her parents isn't the same thing as exoneration or forgetting, and that seeing someone with all possible clarity -- no matter how unlovely the details -- may be the truest form of love. At one point, a wise friend tells Lucy that to be a writer she must learn to be ruthless, a remark that initially discomfits her. Later, with more understanding, she says, "I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think." As she learns, the people who have open hearts are, of necessity, the toughest customers of all. -- David Barbour

(15 January 2020)

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