At one point early on in “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” the successful author played by Laura Linney shares some advice she was given by a writing instructor: “Go to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” And there is something delightfully open-hearted about Linney’s approach to this material, the unlikely adaptation of a first-person 2016 Elizabeth Strout novel that would not seem at first glance to lend itself to the stage (or the screen).
The bulk of the action takes place in a Manhattan hospital room, where Barton is laid up for nine long weeks with a mysterious illness following appendicitis. Spoiler alert: She doesn’t die. But isolated from her husband and two young daughters, she has plenty of time to take stock — especially with the sudden arrival of her long-estranged mother, who turns up at the foot of her bed from her home in rural Illinois armed with local gossip and a stubborn resistance to dwelling on the past or her shortcomings as a parent in a household riven by poverty and abuse.
Alone on stage for the 90-minute running time of the show, which opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Linney skillfully segues between the authorial voice of Lucy and the sharp Midwestern twang of her mother without ever veering into caricature.
Bob Crowley’s simple set design, supplemented by Luke Halls’ video projections, helps set the scene for Linney’s performance, which maintains a cunning sense of narrative progression even as she digresses far off the beaten path. (The adaptation is by Rona Munro.)
Under Richard Eyre’s nuanced direction, she maintains full command of the story even as it meanders from Lucy’s hospital stay to flashbacks to her hardscrabble, TV-free Illinois upbringing to glimpses at a future success borne of sacrifice and loss.
And yes, there are repercussions to this very American story of escape and re-invention — which are perhaps amplified because our hero is a woman. “I did not fly across the country to have you tell me that we’re trash,” her mother chastises Lucy when she hints at the distance, both physical and intellectual, her daughter has placed between them. And while a male hero might shrug off that slight, Lucy feels the brunt of it in that moment — and pangs of regret about some of her choices.
What also emerges is how much her mother’s stubbornness and self-determination — and her ability to stay with a difficult PTSD-afflicted WWII veteran — have influenced her daughter’s ability to chart a very different path for herself. Lucy admits to being stunned that this country bumpkin managed to navigate a big-city airport, taxis and the byzantine halls of a major urban hospital. “Wasn’t easy,” her mother tells her. “But I have a tongue in my head and I used it.”
Lucy does too. But more importantly, she has a luminously open heart.