“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”
That’s what Laura Linney as Lucy Barton tells us from her New York hospital bed in this one-woman stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel. It’s an awfully high-falutin’ literary sentence for somebody who is sick in the hospital, and a clue to the core problem of this sometimes poignant, often tedious 90-minute monologue.
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Lucy is not actually in the hospital; she’s recalling her hospital stay way back in the 1980s. And Lucy — as we learn well into the play — is a successful fiction writer who is writing this story of her nine weeks in that hospital, after a simple appendectomy resulted in complications. The story is not so much about her stay in the hospital as about the fact that her mother, whom she hadn’t seen for years, suddenly appeared at the foot of her bed.
Her mother (never named) was visiting from their hometown of Amgash, Illinois, having taken an airplane trip for the first time in her life (a trip that Lucy’s husband paid for.) Over the next five days, Lucy informs us, her mother told her stories about women from her hometown, all of which end unhappily, and Lucy tells us stories about her own unhappy childhood, one filled with poverty and abuse:
“I don’t know, in numbers, how many times I was locked in the truck. I don’t know the first time, I don’t know the last time …I dreamed of not being cold, of having clean sheets, clean towels, a toilet that worked, and a sunny kitchen.”
The hope was that Laura Linney would do for My Name is Lucy Barton what Frances McDormand did in the HBO miniseries Olive Kittredge, Strout’s earlier novel . But “Olive Kittredge,” the novel, has both a clearer plot and more fully fleshed out characters, and the screen adaptation respects the medium, dramatizing the story in four one-hour episodes.
By contrast, Rona Munro’s stage adaptation of My Name is Lucy Barton, is, if anything, too faithful to the novel. Instead of characters coming to life, there is just the one actress playing two characters (Lucy Barton and her mother.) Yes, they tell many stories about other people, but these stories feel random, unconnected to one another except thematically. And such randomness, presented in many exquisite and elaborate sentences, is best absorbed by individual readers. Our complex and satisfying relationship with the printed page is erased, but it is not replaced by any strenuous effort to make this work explicitly theatrical.
Why is this so? I suspect a large part of the answer lies in the fact that the show has been recorded for an audiobook by Penguin Random House Audio, which will be available for sale in February.
Thus, my first prediction of major theater trends in 2020 seems already being realized — that the new platforms for “live theater” (streaming adaptations, audiobooks) would change the nature and content of the theater being created.
My Name is Lucy Barton is on stage at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater through February 29, 2020.
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