Laura Linney Gives a Captivating Performance in the Title Role in 'My Name Is Lucy Barton' on Broadway

In My Name Is Lucy Barton, starring Laura Linney at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Lucy goes into the hospital for a routine appendectomy. But afterward, complications ensue, and she ends up staying in the hospital for nine weeks, flirting with her doctor and staring out her window at the Chrysler Building and reflecting on her life. One day, out of the blue, she wakes up to find her mother comes to visit. At first one wonders if her mother is real or just a product of Lucy's imagination—for years, Lucy and her mother have not spoken. She is real, but this is no warm-fuzzy Hallmark Channel reunion. There is a chasm between the two that Lucy wants and needs to traverse; and while they make some progress toward that end, a distance that spans years and miles and culture that cannot be overcome. Her mother only stays for five days, but in those five days a lifetime, or two is relived.

Lucy grew up in Amgash, Illinois, in a family that she describes as "trash," a term her mother vehemently disowns. But the evidence is stacked: The family is poor and isolated, and Lucy's classmates say she and her siblings "stink." At first, she escapes her dysfunctional surroundings by reading, then she just escapes her family by leaving physically.

The play by Rona Munro is based on the novel of the same name by Elizabeth Strout, who is perhaps best known as the author of Olive Kitteridge. Adapting a novel into a play is always tricky. Aside from the imperative to create a moving narrative, the playwright has to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. Too slavish an adaptation risks tedium; too free an adaptation risks the ire of the book's fans—and they are many.

Munro skillfully navigates those waters. Fans of the novel will find many of the plot points there, including her brother who reads Little House on the Prairie and sleeps (literally, platonically) with animals on the night before they are to be slaughtered, their abusive father and mother's stories about the Pretty Nicely Girls.

And audience members who have not read the novel should not be lost: Munro's play stands quite well on its own, distilling the crucial elements of Strout's work into a steadily moving, compelling narrative of its own. As Lucy reflects upon her past in this journey of self-discovery, characters seem to pop up around Linney: her mother, brother, husband, and father, a gay neighbor in Greenwich Village, among many others. There may be only on person on stage but that stage is rich with character, all vividly played or evoked by Linney.

Linney may be better known for her work in film (Love Actually, The Truman Show, You Can Count on Me, among many others) and television (Tales of the City and its sequels, The Big C and Ozark), but her stage work has also been extensive and uniformly excellent since the early 1990s. She was honored for two different roles in two different productions of Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen. She was last seen on Broadway also playing two different roles, when she and Cynthia Nixon alternated playing Regina and Birdie in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes.

Now, she is giving a bravura performance in this one-person, two-character play. She plays the title character and her mother. To be completely accurate though, Linney plays Lucy at several different stages of her life. In the present, some 20 or 30 years earlier when she is in the hospital, and as a child. And while you might expect this to be little more than a glorified reading of the novel, thanks in large part to Linney, this Lucy Barton is much more.

For 90 minutes or so, Linney gives a captivating—no, several captivating—performances, telling and living the story of Lucy Barton's life. As present-day Lucy she is closest to the Laura Linney most fans know from hosting Masterpiece or Love Actually: charismatic, smart, self-assured, yet vulnerable. As her mother, she is nasally blunt and distant but loving in her own way. As younger Lucy, at least in the presence of her mother, she is submissive, sad and a little scared.

Linney performed this role in London and her familiarity with it shows. She switches easily and naturally from character to character. For all the success she enjoys in her other work, Linney is a stage animal, and in Lucy Barton she is in her element. And any audience will be lucky to catch her there.

But those who can't attend the show—and those who can for that matter—can get hear Linney perform it on an audiobook that will be published by Penguin Random House Audio on February 4. Either way, hers is a performance you should not miss.

Laura Linney stars in My Name Is Lucy Barton, which is scheduled to run through February 29. For more information go to ManhattanTheatreClub.com.

Laura Linney as Lucy Barton on Broadway
Laura Linney as Lucy Barton has a view of the Chrysler Building from her hospital room in "My Name Is Lucy Barton" at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Matthew Murphy