Although it is a one-woman show, there are several very fine storytellers at work in My Name Is Lucy Barton, a new play based on the 2016 Elizabeth Strout novel of the same name. At least two of those appear on stage.
First, there is Lucy herself, a middle-aged New York City author, here to recount a long-ago summer that she spent in the hospital with a life-threatening complication from a simple surgery. She speaks directly to the audience, clear and purposeful — she is working something out — even as her narrative swoops feverishly through time. She leaps from her hospitalization, to her impoverished and abusive rural Illinois childhood, into murky pockets of her volatile father’s service in the Second World War, and to what happened after she got well.
One day during her illness, missing her husband and young daughters and suffering from severe loneliness, Lucy wakes to find her long-estranged mother at the foot of her bed. “Hi Wizzle,” says Mother, using her daughter’s pet name, as if no time had passed since Lucy fled Amgash, Ill. without looking back. Weak, thin, tired, Lucy is comforted by her mother’s presence. “I asked for stories,” she tells us. “I don’t know why.”
Lucy’s mom has a gift for unspooling morality tales of women in their shared past, beginning with Kathie Nicely who “always wanted something she didn’t have.” She starts this way: “Kathie Nicely. Goodness she came to a bad end.” The vowels in Kathie’s name flatten like a flapjack under the weight of Mother’s Midland accent, and her not inconsiderable judgement. She is plain-spoken, and of her time — fans of Strout’s Olive Kitteridge will recognize the sturdy vintage fabric from which she’s cut. “Trauma-whatever the word is by war” is the best she can manage with regard to damaged men who “had to do some terrible stuff.” She will enrage Lucy with casual revelations of envy. She will also get angry herself, and put her sick daughter in her place. And then she will go.
That both of these women are portrayed by Laura Linney is the neat trick of Lucy Barton. In an enthralling performance, Linney embodies both memoirist and memory. Did Lucy’s mother even show up, or was she a hospital fever dream? She certainly sounds authentic, and has a real effect on Lucy when she jostles the worst of her daughter’s past to the surface. The play, a 90-minute one-act, is a monster of a monologue: Realistic in reflecting the ways that recollections can be inconsistent and tangential, but all the more difficult to memorize for being so. Linney’s delivery is seamless. (The show’s sound cues, intrusive here, suggest music wafting in from another patient’s room; neither the actor nor the audience need them.)
The adaptation is by playwright and screenwriter Rona Munro (known also for TV’s Doctor Who), who wisely retains much of the novel’s language. The director, Richard Eyre, who first staged the production in London in 2018, has a similarly light touch with what amounts to two stars: Linney and Strout’s story. He sets the action entirely within Lucy’s hospital room, furnished only with a bed, chair, and a window that projects a day and night views of New York’s Chrysler Building (the video design is by Luke Halls). At times through that same window appear the fields of Amgash, deceptively lush and beckoning us into the past. A-