Is it ever truly possible to escape the pain and turmoil of the past or will the disturbing memories always be there to haunt you and to impact your present life? That’s the issue at hand in My Name Is Lucy Barton, based on the bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout and adapted for the stage by Rona Munro. Laura Linney, who performed the solo show in its acclaimed debut at the Bridge Theatre in London, makes her return to Broadway with its American premiere, playing a limited eight-week engagement at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
The traumatic story is presented in the format of a memory monologue by the eponymous character, a successful writer in New York sharing a patchwork of recollections of her distressed childhood in rural Illinois and disjointed revelations about her troubled relationship with her long-estranged family there. Triggered by an unexpected visit from her mother during a nine-week post-surgical hospitalization, Lucy’s direct-address reminiscences, and disclosures concerning her own daughters and husband, are interwoven with her impersonations of the gossip, judgments, and other unpleasantries spewed by the mother she hadn’t seen in years, then found sitting at the foot of her hospital bed.
Linney ably characterizes the distinctive personalities, demeanors, and speech patterns of the two women, as well as their unresolved antipathy and unfelt (or unexpressed) love, with a non-stop delivery and a controlled range of emotions that seethes beneath the surface and hints at what remains unsaid between them. Under the direction of Richard Eyre, who also helmed the London production, she moves around the stage, makes direct eye contact with the audience, elicits moments of laughter, and hovers on the brink of tears. Yet despite a solid performance by the award-winning star, the first-person account seems more literary than dramatic, lacking the structure and action of a bona-fide play and feeling more ploddingly recitative than theatrically gripping.
In general, Strout’s descriptive passages are better suited to the page than the stage, rendering the production’s artistic design redundant and superfluous. Her precise words, flowery language, and singular perspective allow us to conjure the woman’s remembrances in our mind’s eye, eliminating the need for projected images of the vast fields of the Midwest or the view of Manhattan’s iconic Chrysler Building through the window (video design by Luke Halls), which supplement the sparse set of a hospital bed and chair (scenic design by Bob Crowley). Peter Mumford’s jarring flashes of illumination and tonal shifts from daylight to nighttime, and John Leonard’s interludes of moody background sound, also provide more distraction than enhancement of the personal story being told.
The limited Broadway engagement of My Name Is Lucy Barton gives fans the welcome opportunity to see Laura Linney back live on stage. But if you can’t make it to the theater before it closes, you can listen to her narration of the work on Audible’s new audiobook, set to be released on February 4, which will enable you to envision it for yourself.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.