Well, well, well. Something tells me that there’s been a lot of argybargy going on and it’s all there if you study the title page of your program, which is a favorite pastime of mine, information galore cloaked in the very sizes of the print and how it’s all distributed. Probably just conjecture but there is no doubt that the names of Elizabeth Strout, author of the eponymous book and Rona Munro, the actual playwright are the same one hundred percent size as that of prestigious director, Richard Eyre, and that of the star, Laura Linney. And that must have taken some dickering.
There’s more: not only is this the Manhattan Theatre Club’s handsome production in its main Broadway house – or one of them – it is also the London success being presented by The London Theatre Company. And some divisions of Random House. Furthermore, Rona Munro, here known as the adapter rather than as the playwright, is very, very well known and represented in the British Isles. All this for Lucy Barton.
Not quite: Laura Linney is vital to the mix. Director Richard Eyre, fully aware, stages her simply, brilliantly. Her luster, her very sheen is the catalyst propelling this singular performance the moment she walks out on the new thrust stage, banked with thrilled audience selectees. Because Lucy Barton would otherwise be a drab, uptight, small town wannabe writer lying in a hospital bed for nine weeks recovering from a simple operation that raged into a deadly sepsis. And how she spent the time.
There’s something fresh, delicious, youthfully healthful about Laura Linney so that when she starts telling her story- as Lucy Barton- you want to be in her presence, no matter it’s about her hospital stay. Designer Bob Crowley, who did the set and costume gives us a wide open space for that hospital bed and that visitor’s chair which works hand in glove with projection designer Luke Halls’s instant support for Lucy/Laura’s story telling. And Lucy/Laura becomes little by little just Lucy telling us mostly about her mother’s visit to her in the hospital and not nearly so much about the blood and guts but about her growing up with her strange, proud, bitter cantankerous Mom she hadn’t seen in years.
It’s a bit odd at first when Lucy moves over to the chair and becomes her Mom but we like odd. As long as Laura is doing it. Miraculously, the same, lovely outfit Laura Linney wears introducing us to Lucy is perfect for Mom, stretched and wrapped tight under lighting designer’s empathic care. And back again to comfortable Lucy. Well,, as comfortable as you can be in a hospital in a rare and anxious making visit from the harsh Mom you loved as a child and –now? Still love? Although you had to get away from that threadbare life and never returned all these years. And here she is, in that chair, telling, telling, not a cheerful word in any of the stories. But Lucy was so glad to hear them, so glad her Mom was there.
Seamlessly, our Laura has become plain spoken Lucy, successful New York novelist, still the eager, searching child of her even plainer spoken mother, both of them with a core of iron, both of them unbowed, Lucy open, Mom guarded, Lucy with a childhood that included being locked in the family truck every day at five a.m. when both parents had to work all day in that dismal town of Amgash. Lucy remembering her father dressing her brother in his mother’s dress and shoes and beads, lipstick on his face, forcing him to walk the main street, then beating him and collapsing in tearful tenderness with his broken spirited son in his arms. Lucy desperate to get away.
Somehow, Lucy speaks without a single speech contraction, as if she plucks her words from off classic pages, never a “don’t”., a “can’t”, a “didn’t”, always “do not”, “cannot” ,”did not”. Overly proper authorly. Playwright Rona Munro wisely keeps these locutions in her play, rounding character without flourishes. Then it’s up to Linney. Turn this into normal speech. As normal as that of a Midwesterner become a New Yorker. Every bit of the striving was in the customary character of the desperate girl who became the determined woman having to be ruthless to achieve her dream of being a writer. All before us in Laura Linney’s empathic reaching out. No wonder her London hit had to be here.
My Name is Lucy Barton. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Tickets: $89-$299. 212-239-6200. 1hr 30 min. Thru Feb 29.
A Broadway boon. A treasure to treasure.