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New York City Theater

"My Name is Lucy Barton"
Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Lucy Barton is alone in her hospital room, a victim of complications from an appendectomy. She can look out the window at the New York skyline and, more particularly, at the Chrysler Building. And she can escape, if that’s the word, into her memory of her Illinois childhood as New York morphs into bucolic acres of corn and soybeans.

And so begins “My Name is Lucy Barton,” Elizabeth Strout’s loving one-woman memoir, adapted for the stage by Rona Munro and starring a radiant Laura Linney. For 90 intermissionless minutes, Linney, as Barton, exists on three planes: in the present as wife and mother of two young girls, in the past as neglected daughter and as a writer who learns to be ruthless in uncovering her family’s foibles. It’s a bravura performance.

The evening (co-produced by Manhattan Theater Club and the London Theater Company) doesn’t go much beyond the personal, although there are hints of a nation falling apart. ”We only have one story, just one, and we have to find the ways to tell it,” says Lucy. “This is my story. And yet it could be the story of many.”

Lucy’s not alone in the hospital for long, not when her mother comes in from Amgash, Illinois, telling gossipy stories in a flat Midwestern accent. Linney acts the mother also, switching seamlessly from daughter to a mom who is bitter, unfulfilled and incapable of expressing emotions.

As a child, Lucy led a hardscrabble life, with barely enough food (often supper was molasses on bread), a mother who hit her and a father who punished her by locking her in a truck, her only companion “a really long brown snake.”

“Friendless” and “scorned,” she took refuge in books, which made her feel less alone. “And I thought,” she says, “though it was still a secret thought -- I will write and people will not feel so alone! I took myself secretly, secretly -- very seriously. I knew I was a writer.”

Out of her deep fear of loneliness, and remembering her upbringing, Lucy has great empathy for victims – for the men with AIDS who lived in her West Village neighborhood, for the doctor’s relatives, killed in the Holocaust, for a crying child. Still, for all her insecurities, Lucy feels she was loved by parents who, unfortunately, didn’t directly tell her so or inquire about her life and career.

Subtly directed by Richard Eyre, with scenery and costumes by Bob Crowley, lighting by Peter Mumford, and video design by Luke Halls, “Lucy Barton” is an absorbing work. If it’s as much lecture as drama, it does furnish insights into how the past becomes the future.

“The writer I admire says we all love imperfectly,” recalls Lucy. “She also said you can never know another person fully, never understand another human being well enough to tell the story of all they are.”

--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 26, 2020

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