The public does not appear in “My name is Lucy Barton” for Lucy, they come for Linney.
That is Laura Linney, the venerable actress, who stars in the work of a woman, adapted from the novel by Elizabeth Strout, which premiered on Broadway on Wednesday night. It is an expert performance that uses the actress’s characteristic movement: directing the stage while remaining gentle and dignified.
Linney almost never screams, exuding the confidence of an athlete and the wisdom of a therapist with total ease. She is so authoritative and generous, that you leave the theater waiting for your PBS bag by mail.
Rona Munro’s drama about a hospitalized writer who reunites with her separated mother is almost too suitable for Linney, like the perfect black turtle neck for someone who only uses a black turtle neck. Although the work addresses difficult issues such as military post-traumatic stress disorder, child abuse and AIDS, it is a stubbornly polite writing. You want fireworks, but you only get a sparkler.
The play takes place in the 1980s in New York, when Lucy, a West Village writer who dresses like a yogi, suffers a mysterious illness and is hospitalized for nine weeks. His mother, whom he has not seen in years, arrives unexpectedly from western Illinois, ready to gossip and complain about his neighbors at home. But the visit digs up Lucy’s horrible childhood of being abused by her military father and kidnapped from society in a distant cornfield.
Linney plays both roles, and her transformation from daughter affected to cold mother, who hides her feelings with the muscle of the Midwest, is simple but powerful. The actress sits in a corner chair and adds only a touch of acid to her voice, an intelligent contrast with the most sensitive Lucy. Director Richard Eyre skilfully navigates these moments, and the transition is velvety.
The dialogue, not so much. Since the work is an adaptation of a novel, which has an author as its main character, the speeches tend to be too literary. Lucy, recalling a trip by car on an Illinois highway, says: “The soybean was on the side, of an intense green, illuminating the sloppy and sloping fields with its beauty.” This is how people write, not how they speak, and the effect everywhere is that Lucy is about to ask for a vegan matcha latte.
What redeems “Lucy Barton”, apart from Linney’s presence, is the rarely seen relationship of a mother and daughter who lacks affection. Outside the theater after the show, I heard a woman say to her friend: “My mother never told me that she loved me too.” Despite its flaws, “Lucy Barton” hits something real.