NEW YORK — The title character of “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” Rona Munro’s crystalline stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel, is hardly a woman of mystery. On the contrary, as embodied with middle-American forthrightness by a perfectly cast Laura Linney, in the production that opened Wednesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Lucy may be the most translucent figure now on a New York stage.
Feelings seem to register on her face before her thoughts have a chance to catch up with them, so that we know when she’s hurting or happy almost before she does. A New York writer who grew up in rural Illinois, Lucy Barton is surely someone we can trust to speak plain. What a relief to be in the company, for once, of a thoroughly reliable narrator.
And yet mystery — truly unfathomable and utterly ordinary — is at the center of this deceptively modest Manhattan Theater Club production, which originated in London and is directed with quiet care by Richard Eyre. I’m not referring to the classic suspense-making withholding of information that is usually a requisite of entertaining storytelling.
Nor do I mean those moments in which Lucy, recalling a loveless childhood in poverty on an isolated farm, slams on the brakes of her narrative as she stumbles on a memory she would rather not talk about now. Give her time; she’ll come back to it.
But Lucy also knows that full transparency does not equal full knowledge. This is true even when your primary sources are your own heart and mind.
“I still am not sure it’s a true memory,” Lucy says, after describing the sadistic public humiliation of her brother by her father on the streets of a small town. “Except I do know it, I think. I mean: It is true …” That final affirmation rings slightly hollow.
Because of course we can’t know the full truth of any person, including our own self. That’s part of what makes life so sad; it is an even larger part of what makes life such so wondrously fascinating. Every breath of Linney’s performance acknowledges this contradiction.
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Plays adapted as monologues from memoirs and close first-person fiction are seldom satisfying onstage. The magic that pulses in a book can disintegrate when these same words are interpreted by a performer who isn’t, as it were, on the same page. (When the great actress Vanessa Redgrave performed the great writer Joan Didion’s memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” on Broadway, the result wasn’t a doubled greatness, but a dilution of the singular strengths of each.)
Linney and Strout, in contrast, are almost seamlessly well matched. Other actresses have beautifully portrayed Strout characters on screen, notably Frances McDormand in “Olive Kitteridge.”
But what Linney is being asked to do here is to embody not only a fictional person but also the literary voice that shaped that person. And using the artfully shaded directness she has shown both on film (“You Can Count on Me”) and stage (“Sight Unseen,” “The Little Foxes”), Linney indeed acts the way that Strout writes.
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As a storyteller, Strout’s Lucy is almost apologetic in her humility. But she is also possessed of an underlying strength that knows that she has had what it takes to not only endure but prevail.
The setting of the play is largely a hospital room, evoked in Bob Crowley’s set by little more than an institutional chair and bed, with transformative lighting by Peter Mumford. (Video design by Luke Halls, which turns the hospital window into an aperture onto a hazy past, is fine, though I could have done without the intrusive melancholy music.)
This is where many years ago, a younger Lucy spent nearly nine weeks of her existence, with a life-threatening infection that is never fully identified. Her hospitalization reunites her with the mother she hasn’t seen in years.
In the scenes that follow, Lucy often becomes her mother — or rather Linney becomes Lucy becoming her mother. This is an important distinction to make, since Linney is not trying to create another, autonomous character here.
When Lucy speaks as her mother, it’s with a sort of descriptive physical shorthand, conjuring sharp edges and a nasal twang. The caricature in the imitation underscores the distance between what Lucy came from and what she has become. But now, in extremis, all Lucy wants is Mommy, and she wants Mommy to tell her stories.
And though she begins reluctantly, Lucy’s mother turns out to be a corn country Scheherazade, with successive stories of local women who aspired above their station and usually came to bad ends. They are familiar tales and yet utterly distinctive from one another, with startling details that suggest the perversity of flailing souls who misread their own intentions.
“People,” Lucy says, wonderingly, after her mother finishes an anecdote about a runaway wife. Her mother echoes, “People.” It’s a gorgeous moment of fleeting complicity between mother and daughter.
As for subjects closer to their Amgash, Illinois, home, especially Lucy’s tormented father, her mother sidesteps those with discomfort and disapproval. It is for her daughter to fill in those gaps for us, with accounts of the kind of numbing, oppressive and outright abusive existence that so many people accept as a life sentence.
Lucy did not, though. Why? Her trajectory from childhood to college, to marriage and motherhood, and ultimately to a career as a successful fiction writer, is fairly conventional in summary. It sounds like one of those inspirational survivor stories, of success against the odds, which are regularly packaged for mass consumption.
But Lucy conveys an abiding air of surprise that all this happened to her. Linney’s presence here is deferential, almost shy. From the moment she enters, walking quickly and talking briskly, you sense that it requires conscious, self-preaching willpower for her to tell us all this.
But when Lucy says she has become ruthless — as those who first knew she wanted to be a writer advised her she would have to be — we believe her. This means that the truths she is telling hurt — us and her. And they of course aren’t the whole truth.
But aren’t we grateful for the alchemical, unquantifiable mix of factors that allows this woman — embodied by this actress, at this moment, in this place — to share with us so raptly what she knows, or even thinks she knows? When Lucy says, with a satisfaction that’s bigger than happiness, that “all life amazes me,” we feel exactly what she means.
‘My Name Is Lucy Barton’
Through Feb. 29 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater; manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
Written by Elizabeth Strout; adaptation by Rona Munro; directed by Richard Eyre; sets and costumes by Bob Crowley; lighting by Peter Mumford; sound by John Leonard; video by Luke Halls; production stage manager, Roy Harris; general manager, Florie Seery. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director, Barry Grove, executive producer; and the London Theater Company, Nicholas Hytner, Nick Starr and Tim Levy, in association with Penguin Random House Audio.
Cast: Laura Linney.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .